Live from British Columbia’s Skookumchuck Narrows: here’s a great example of what can quickly and unexpectedly happen to you when you get out of shape with your barge (or lose power or steering) on a short wire, and why it’s imperative that you keep your doors securely dogged shut when towing. Here’s another news story about it.
But nothing shows it better than the video…..
A functional quick-release of some sort, the only thing that might save you once you get this far out of shape, obviously wasn’t a part of this tug’s towing system…..and I’ve never heard of one being used in North America. Why not? Although the circumstances were different, the end result was very similar to what happened to the Flying Phantom on Scotland’s River Clyde. They had an emergency release on the drum, but it didn’t work when they most needed it. This time, at least, no one died.
As a deckhand I spent some time on a semi-regular container run, what is now called short sea shipping, between Port Elizabeth and Boston. I had to stand by the tow winch on numerous occasions while hauling poorly-loaded (down at the head), poor-handling box barges with a fair current through Hell Gate on the way back to New Jersey. The barges would often do what we called “The Wiggle”: yawing wildly from side to side, then abruptly shearing off, sometimes getting out to almost a 90-degree angle as if to pass us. I’d been given explicit instructions that if the barge ever got fully around on us and we started to bury a rail, or if I was told to over the back deck’s loud hailer, I was to spin the brake wheel and let the wire out. I never had to do it, but it was close a few times. In retrospect, we simply shouldn’t have been going through there with a fair current, period. We also should have refused to tow the barges unless they were loaded in such a way that they were properly-trimmed, with at least a foot or so of drag. But it was the early 90′s and work got pretty slow at times. Staying on a schedule was deemed more important than the risk of getting tripped, and waiting for slack water on a westbound Hell Gate transit just wasn’t done. Safety culture, both within management and the boat crews, was still pretty loose. The Git-R-Done come hell or high water attitude was pervasive, even though it could easily get you dead.
Since then I’ve had three or four brushes with getting moderately out of shape while handling both light and loaded barges on a short wire, literally getting my chain yanked pretty hard for it. Fortunately, each time I’ve recovered quickly and gotten back out in front of my tow, and it never went beyond the mild white-knuckle stage and being mad at myself for getting into a bad position in the first place. I’ll never know for sure unless I have to do it for real, and I hope I never have to, but my back-up plan for having gotten into a non-recoverable position (assuming that I’m at the aft control station and that it wasn’t due to a loss of steering or power) has always consisted of a combination of hard twin-screwing and dumping out enough wire to reduce the strain to where I could get the stern around and facing towards the direction of pull, and then backing down some (or letting more wire out) if necessary. If I’m steering from the pilothouse and we’re in a high-risk environment then I’ll station a crewman at the winch controls, ready to free-spool the drum if need be. Will my plan work? Dunno, but it’s the one I’ve got for now until someone or something teaches me otherwise.
As we all should know, there’s no substitute for actual experience. Anyone who’s been-there/done-that, and who has lived to have a good story to tell, will get their own post…..