Well, they finally went and did it, and we always had “faith” in them that they would. The Coast Guard published their Final Rule for “Training and Service Requirements for Merchant Marine Officers” that serve on towing vessels last Thursday in the Federal Register, and it’s quite a statement. Sea-time earned on actual towing vessels is, to the Coast Guard and the supporters of this rule-change, not terribly important if you want to “lateral” over into the towing industry from other sectors of the Merchant Marine. It’s so unimportant to them, in fact, that now the holders of licenses as master of 200 Gross Register Tons (GRT) or less (read: Master of Steam or Motor Vessels not greater than 100-GRT or 200-GRT) only need thirty 8-hour days or twenty 12-hour days on a tug or towboat to meet the minimum qualifications of sea service for Mate / Pilot of Towing Vessels upon oceans, near coastal, Great Lakes and inland routes. For Western Rivers one needs only ninety 8-hour days or sixty 12-hour days. This rule-change aligns (more or less) the regulations for all mariners who don’t have towing licenses or endorsements but want to work on towing vessels, and it does it in a way that virtually guarantees abuse of the system. There are more deck officers holding 100-GRT licenses (roughly 20,000) than all of the others put together. Many thousands of them, with absolutely no requirement for any relevant experience, may now be eligible for this shortcut. The only substantive difference is that the new rule requires that these masters must have three years of service (1,080 8-hour days or 720 12-hour days) on the license to be eligible for this fast track. Service on what? That doesn’t matter anymore.
The “30 days and a TOAR” loophole has existed since 2001 for masters and mates who held licenses for steam or motor vessels over 200-GRT (read: 500-GRT, 1,600-GRT and the unlimited-tonnage licenses). It was a political “compromise” (read: cave-in) made because many of the holders of these licenses, particularly the unlimited-tonnage mariners, screeched during the towing license rule-making process that placing limits on them was unfair and that the “unlimited license is no longer unlimited.” They were correct in that regard, but failed to understand the simple fact that experience gained outside the towing industry is not and can never be considered fully equivalent, or sometimes even partially equivalent, to experience gained within the towing industry. The idea that, once having attained the status of Master Mariner, there should or could ever be any limit as to what kind of vessel they could operate was an intolerable abomination, a direct assault to their inflated egos! Regardless, there never was any proper research or reasoned debate over what would be an appropriate period of “training and observation” for someone, even a veteran mariner, who wanted to move into the towing sector but had no actual experience. It was just an arbitrary number that met the key criteria of being politically palatable at the time. It was a bad precedent to set, and has now clearly led to further trouble since it was the primary justification for using the same number of days in the new rule. To paraphrase Einstein, you can’t solve a problem with the same kind of thinking that brought that problem on in the first place. But on a practical level it had little effect: then, as now, there was relatively little cross-pollination between mariners working as deck officers aboard large ships, the vast array of oilfield service vessels, and the conventional tug-and-barge community. If there had been any substantial personnel crossover then there would have been no reason to expand the loophole again.
This new rule-change, however, has the potential to cause serious safety problems in the towing sector as a result of inexperienced and unqualified mariners being shot quickly through the TOAR sign-off procedure. Despite the reasoned objections of mariners, and the opportunity to limit it to the oilfield captains (who at least have experience with heavy work boats, rough seas, strong currents, and working in close quarters around drilling rigs and production platforms) the Coast Guard left it wide open to anyone at all. This may offend some people, but experience running charter or party fishing boats, Sea Tow vessel-assist boats, water taxis, tour boats, dinner boats, sight-seeing boats, etc. is only marginally applicable to the commercial towing industry. Or the oilfield, for that matter. Candidates coming from these sectors are, with few exceptions, should be considered as little more than green deckhands who happen to have a license and possibly some decent small craft boat-handling skills that, in any case, bear very little relation to the real job at hand. Many who have come into the towing industry thinking that they were just a hop, skip and a jump from the wheelhouse have been rudely surprised to find that they were completely incompetent even to be “just” a deckhand. What is most telling about this sad state of affairs is that the only people who think this is a good idea are people who have never run a tug and have no skin in the game. When you face personal physical peril your views are usually different from those who don’t.
And who is supposed to prevent the inevitable abuse of this newly expanded loophole? The very same Coast Guard-certified Towing Vessel Designated Examiners that specifically warned the Coast Guard that this was a bad move, and were then completely ignored. Nice! But the comments from the D.E.’s are there for all the world to see on federal docket number USCG-2006-26202, so it’s not like the Coast Guard somehow didn’t get the word about what is likely to happen. It must be nice to live in a fool’s paradise. Meanwhile, the company responsible for the T/V Mel Oliver-M/V Tintomara collision in New Orleans had little regard for the regulations, and no real reason to fear that the regulators would ever be on their case about it. They were repeat offenders, and what’s going on now is just a post-accident investigation that will uncover nothing that everyone didn’t already know. Bad regulatory policy like this will only serve to encourage the other shady operators even further, putting the substantial majority of companies (who want to do the right thing) at a competitive disadvantage. And the beat goes on…..