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Question Of The Month: On A 600 Mile Voyage, 2 Watches Or 3?

Question: Isn’t there some rule about going to three watches on tugs if the trip is 600 miles long?

Simple Answer: Yes, sometimes. It depends.

This is a question that comes up fairly often. Unfortunately, most of those occasions have involved a captain who was looking for the right “legal ammunition” to argue with while being pressured from above to sail short-handed as a money-saving and/or ease-of-logistics tactic. Maybe answering it here publicly on the blog will allow the information to spread more widely and help reduce this practice. Those of you who want to be more fully informed should continue reading.

There are, in fact, federal laws and Coast Guard regulations that require that the deck officers (and other crew members) on some tugs must be in a 3-watch system. There are three conditions that must be met to trigger that requirement.

  1. The U.S.-documented tug in question must measure 200 gross register tons (GRT) or more under our domestic tonnage system (not to be confused with tonnage measured under the International Tonnage Convention, or ITC tonnage).

  2. The total distance of the voyage in question must be 600 miles* or more in length.

  3. The tug must be seagoing. This means that at some point during the voyage the vessel must operate on the high seas: all waters beyond the boundary line).

The applicable regulations are located in 46 CFR § 15.705, with paragraphs (c) and (d) providing the specific information that determines whether or not you are covered by them. The statutory law from which the regulations are derived is 46 USC § 8104, paragraphs (d), (g) and (h). In addition, there is Chapter 26 (Manning Of Uninspected Vessels) of Volume III (Marine Industry Personnel) in the Coast Guard’s Marine Safety Manual, which is outdated and also has a very minor inaccuracy concerning the voyage length (it reads “voyage greater than 600 miles” rather than “at least 600 miles” or “600 miles or more”, as it should to be consistent with the law), but still contains much valuable information and guidance. Finally, there is also Policy Letter 4-00, Rev. 1 that references this information (and also has the same minor mistake on the voyage distance).

The Coast Guard is very clear, as per 46 CFR § 15.705(d), that they interpret the law to mean that towing vessels of less than 200GRT, regardless of the length of the voyage, can use the 2-watch system for as long as they want. While that may very well be the correct legal interpretation of our jumbled and conflicting mess of marine statutes, it is clearly inconsistent with both common sense and marine safety generally. If, as a reasonable person might readily conclude, the reason for the law’s 600-mile break point was the recognition by the original legislators that standing 12 hours of watch a day on long ocean voyages wears down crews quickly, leading to fatigue-related accidents, then the mileage-trigger should apply to all towing vessels, regardless of tonnage. Any other conclusion simply makes no sense, other than short-term economic sense while completely disregarding the known risks. The Coast Guard and TSAC should be advising Congress accordingly, and Congress should listen and act accordingly.

Keep in mind that these regulations apply strictly to domestic voyages. If you embark on an international voyage, particularly to Canada or Europe, expect that port state control officers there will probably hammer you for not having adequate manning to stand a proper 3-watch rotation, regardless of your vessel’s tonnage. Britain, in particular, is fed up with our sub-standard and dangerous manning practices, so visiting U.S. tugs are a ripe target for enforcement action. For more on the subject see this post from last month.

*Note: the statute does not specify statute or nautical miles. However, because for regulatory purposes all distances are normally calculated in nautical miles (except on the inland rivers, where a 3-watch system is never required), it can be safely assumed that nautical miles is the correct unit of measurement in this case.

We are hereby accepting submissions for future Question Of The Month posts and you can email them to us at for consideration. Please show a little consideration for our all-volunteer time by not asking tired or otherwise-lame questions (how do I get a towing license?) whose answers are readily available within the vast amount of information resources compiled for your convenience here at Towmasters and elsewhere on the interwebs. Thanks so much…..

#3WatchSystem #TSAC #TowingVessels #Watches #MarineSafetyManual #PolicyLetter400 #TowingSafetyAdvisoryCommittee #USCoastGuard #2watchSystem #Manning #600Miles

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