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When Is It A Tug, When Is It An ATB, & What About The TOAR? – Part I

It sounds like a simple question: when is a tug a tug? Since the ATB unit has come on the scene the answer isn’t quite so simple anymore, and it has brought new challenges to the training and licensing of deck officers as well as the manning of the vessels. I’ve no doubt that there are a number of mariners out there who’ll dispute my definition of what is and is not a towing vessel, but it seems that the debate has at least gotten started and at least one old-school type who had previously disagreed with me has since come around to the idea that this is an area that needs to be addressed. The debate needs to continue, and experienced towing vessel officers need to be deeply involved so that the right decisions are made and the regulations reflect reality while preserving an adequate level of safety, professional qualifications and minimum-experience levels. This absolutely cannot be left up to the Coast Guard, the TSAC and AWO, they of the 30-Day Wonder debacle.

The heart of the issue is this: should Articulated Tug & Barge Units (ATB’s) continue to be regarded as towing vessels for the purposes of licensing and/or the completion of a full Towing Officer Assessment Record (TOAR)? It is my personal view that the answer to that question, in most cases, is no. ATB’s, (specifically, true purpose-built ATB’s that cannot normally be operated as a conventional towing vessel) belong in either a towing vessel sub-category, or in their own category altogether separate from towing vessels. If they remain in the towing vessel category they need to have their own limited-TOAR, specific to that vessel or vessel class and the equipment and systems on it. If they become their own category then a set of ATB practical assessments will need to be created, also with vessel-specific details.

Conventional towing vessels are, by definition, multi-purpose and capable of engaging in a wide variety of work activities. Most purpose-built ATB’s, whether 1st or 2nd generation, are simply not capable of practically and safely engaging in those activities, despite some of the optimistic claims made by their designers or owners, and there are very few exceptions to be found. If you’re at the point where you accept the idea that the skill sets required of those operating ATB’s is different than those operating conventional tugs then the next step is determining which is which.

Keeping that in mind, is the Nicole Leigh Reinauer…..

… of the first of the original wave of ATB’s…..

…..also a multi-purpose tug? Nah, so let’s not argue too much about the obvious and move on. While it is true that, in some very limited circumstances and only with someone that has a strong conventional-tug background, it’s possible to fake it a bit and take the barge alongside or tow it around the harbor just for show. But that’s just showing off: the “tug” wasn’t designed or intended for that use, nor could someone without many years of experience pull it off. You can shovel a bunch of dirt or gravel into the trunk of any car and haul it around, but that doesn’t make it an F-150. The regulations of the present and future need to be crafted and continuously adjusted for the mariners, vessels and the required qualifications of the present and future, not the ancient past. Forcing mariners on this kind of ATB to complete a full TOAR is pointless because it can’t honestly be done, and all that continuing to require it accomplishes is to create a serious advancement bottleneck for those trying to move up. No one gains anything from this and the regulations need to be changed in a sane way to allow for the technological changes in our industry.

Unfortunately, as with many things, there exists a gray area that could (and likely would) become problematic for the typical one-size-fits-all approach commonly associated with any type of regulatory activity. The problem-area is not enormous, but neither is it insubstantial: when what used to be a conventional tug is converted into an ATB, a.k.a. a pin boat, how should it be classified? This is a phenomenon that has so far been confined, as far as I know, to the northeastern United States. Three of the big players on the East Coast, New York Harbor-based K-Sea Transportation, Reinauer Transportation, and Bouchard Transportation, have converted a significant number of their older conventional tugs into ATB’s of varying form and capability, and more will follow.

Take K-Sea’s Houma, shown here towing a barge alongside bow-first in New York Harbor’s Upper Bay.

You can clearly see from both photos that this is a run-of-the-mill bunkering operation, the tug made up for going shipside with the best available maneuverability.

But what wasn’t apparent in the previous two photos is…..