Posted by: towmasters | June 17, 2011

Can You See Me Now?

You know those decals you see on the larger delivery trucks and tractor-trailers that read “If You Can’t See Me I Can’t See You.”? Well, how about this small tug with a loaded “scrappy” (scrap-metal scow) power-sliding wide around the construction barges on the seawall at Corlears Hook with a max-ebb East River current on their tail…

Can’t see the operator, can you.

Nor can you see any sign of a lookout. This is a pretty flagrant foul, as these things go, and unfortunately it’s not at all uncommon. Keep in mind that this tug/scow combo was coming directly at us while digging hard to get back over to the Manhattan-side of the river. Once they got fully into their turn around the hook they were literally going sideways and therefore, because of the obstruction presented by their tow, unable to see where they were actually going or any oncoming traffic. In fact, they would have been looking directly at the Lower Manhattan shoreline and hoping like hell it all worked out. It was a Wile E. Coyote-style moment: arms and legs spinning wildly as he sails off the cliff edge…but in the end it did work out, which only reinforces the bad idea that it’s okay to keep doing it.

Apparently we can do things correctly and responsibly or we can do things profitably, but we simply cannot do both at the same time, or at least that’s the implication a reasonable person might take from seeing things like this. Of course, that is pure BS. You have to give credit where credit is due, though: they sure did one hell of a job loading that scow as full as possible, so someone was making money.

But why no lookout? That’s simple: either the tug’s crew is negligent (qualified personnel were available but unused) or the tug is under-manned. Under-manning (both practically and legally) is a chronic problem, particularly on the smaller tugs doing the “low-value” (non-oil) work, and this practice predates the economic woes that presently grip our country and the rest of the world. The Coast Guard has thus far shown little inclination/ability for any real, sustained enforcement of even the existing weak regulations which, among other shortcomings, place no explicit limit on the work hours of deckhands. Nor have they shown any taste for promoting the obvious remedy: recommending to Congress, via a legislative change proposal, a revision of the laws (U.S. Code) that the manning regulations (Code of Federal Regulations) are derived from. Which is not to say that Congress would necessarily heed that advice, or even want to hear it in the first place: there are, after all, some influential “constituents” out there who would undoubtedly complain that properly manning their vessels would put them out of business and so would argue (and lobby) forcefully against it.

Anyhoo, for a good visibility comparison here’s the tug Paul Andrew

…whose skipper clearly can see over the tow, even without a designated lookout…

…because the upper pilothouse allows for it. Well, duh!

This tug, the Charles D. McAllister, with the car float alongside has enough height-of-eye to easily see over the box cars, even without an upper house, and would normally need the assistance of the deckhand’s eyes only when in close proximity to the slip and float bridge for sailing and landing.

This one is questionable…

…because of the blind spots created by the on-deck obstructions. If there is a lookout then they are well-hidden. The upper pilothouse would be a much better vantage point for the operator but then, as you can plainly see, carbon monoxide poisoning would be a distinct risk, along with the negative health effects (asthma, heart disease, lung cancer, etc.) of breathing in lots of concentrated particulate pollution from the diesel exhaust. But hey, there’s no need to protect the health of the people that work on these vessels because the vessels are uninspected! Oh wait, Congress ordered them to be inspected years ago. Whatever

But sometimes there’s no way that you could ever have an upper pilothouse tall enough…

…to see even a little. One would hope that they have at least the basic deckhand lookout posted, and from my observations over the years that has usually been the case. But is that really enough?

Using an unlicensed seaman (no matter how experienced) to serve as the only set of eyes for a 180-degree or more blind spot would probably be viewed as legally-questionable at best if an accident occurred. This is an area that I’ve never seen addressed: at what point visibility-wise have you crossed the threshold between situations that require just a standard lookout (a properly trained and supervised ordinary or able seaman) and those situations where only a fully-qualified deck officer will do. If there is any sort of substantial obstruction of visibility or blind spots forward of the tug’s beam I think a very good argument can be made for requiring an additional deck officer capable of giving actual steering recommendations/commands to the officer conning the tug for the general purposes of collision avoidance and safe navigation. Having to rely on a basic lookout that can only give you bearings and ranges to other vessels, docks, buoys, and other hazards is a rather frightening position to be in when half your visibility is gone. You’re completely at the mercy of someone who, when it comes right down to it, probably doesn’t have the knowledge, experience, judgment and ability, and almost certainly not the legal standing, required to give you accurate and useful steering recommendations in close-quarters situations, when that might well be the only thing that can save you.

Below, for example, you see two personnel posted forward on the barge. Is one of them a senior, more-experienced AB-deckhand that might actually know the harbor (buoy system, channels, traffic patterns, hazards, currents, etc.) well enough that they could be of real use (very rare these days), or is the extra person an officer? If so, is that officer a temporary extra (carried aboard on this job just for this purpose) or was he the only other officer on board in a 2-watch system, woken up while off-watch (illegally) to do this? Who knows? Either way, it looks like they’re at least trying to do the right thing.

But I think it’s fair to say that if the average person saw trucks driving around in a similar fashion of severely obscured vision they would be very alarmed by it, and rightfully so: imagine a tractor rolling down the highway through traffic with its trailer “on the hip.” Trying to explain it away by saying “Well, that’s just the way we do it!” simply isn’t good enough.


…container barges get towed across or through the harbor, but that brings a whole different set of potential problems with it, primarily related to controlling an unwieldy tow in confined waters with a lot of traffic and current, which is why it isn’t often done that way. Of course, if the boxes aren’t stacked too high in the first place…

…you can see over them with no problem at all. Even loaded to just one or two tiers high, that’s still a hell of a lot of tractor-trailers off the roads and bridges.

The bottom line is this: if the officers conning tugs can’t see over and around their tows, and don’t have adequate numbers of properly-qualified additional personnel in place to make up for that fact (and without violating the watch/work-hour limits), then the tug shouldn’t be engaged in that work, period. This is largely a manning problem. Failure to enforce realistic manning on towing vessels only diminishes the Coast Guard’s standing as a marine safety agency.

For further information please see the following highly-relevant reports from the National Mariners Association:

All of the other fine NMA Reports can be located here. There’s not much in the way of mariner’s issues that they haven’t covered at one time or another, so take a little time and read up on them. You might be surprised at what you don’t know.
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  1. I’ll agree that in situations such as the loaded container barge scenario that an additional watch officer would be prudent, but I can’t see my way to agreement on giving a lookout the ability to make regular steering recommendations without requiring them to have pilotage experience. In my head, while gaming this scenario out, I kept coming up against the question as to who would actually be the OOW at that point, and who would be the pilot. By my reasoning, once a lookout has duties requiring him/her to make pilotage decisions, they’re a pilot. IMHO, the lack of reliable and trained unlicensed personnel, while lamentable, doesn’t preclude the need to train them properly to do exactly what you described. I don’t see the political will extant to make changes before the next disaster, whenever that is.

  2. Far to often the deckhand on watch has to cook a meal for the crew, so corners are cut. I cant tell you how many times I had to guide my barge around for the tug so the deckhand can go back and finish preparing a meal. It never bothered me cause I had a lot of experience guiding and docking all kinds of barges from my decking days, but there were times that I really needed to get off my feet…so you do what needs to be done.The worst thing that was done in N.Y harbor was to take away the cooks.

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