Posted by: towmasters | November 16, 2008

Hit the Deck!

You can read it in the forums at gCaptain and Tugboatlife, the Mail Bag in Workboat magazine, and I get more than my share via email: “I’ve got a (fill in the blank) license and some experience with (fill in the blank) vessels, but I can’t find anyone who’ll give me a chance!” There appears to be an undetermined but potentially useful number of mariners with “paper” (read: a deck license) of one sort or another that want to make a go of it in the towing sector of our Merchant Marine. The shortage of mariners being a well-reported fact, why, they wonder, is it so damn hard to find a company that will give them a shot? That’s a good question, and it deserves a good answer. Unfortunately, this may be nearly impossible to do. But we’ll try anyway.

But first, what exactly is a “qualified” mariner? It depends on whom you ask. To the Coast Guard, if you meet the applicable requirements in the regulations (minimum age, sea time, etc.) and pass the relevant exams and training, then you’re deemed to be “qualified” as far as they’re concerned. But “qualified”, in that sense of the word, isn’t the same as being competent or skilled or proven in towing operations, and it’ll only take you so far. A mariner “lateraling” over from another sector, needs adequate time and space to learn the many skills required of towing vessel deck officers. Adequate can mean anywhere from several months (for the exceptionally gifted) to several years, depending on the individual and their background. Many will never make it, no matter how hard or long they try. I call it Tugboat Darwinism. Everyone isn’t cut out for this line of work and that’s all there is to it.

Fast-tracking people to the wheelhouse, the latest industry buzzword, is a foolish and dangerous gimmick dreamed up by perhaps well-meaning but ignorant landlubbers that sleep in their own bed every night and don’t know what risking their own physical safety is all about. It has absolutely no place in the nearly universal 2-watch system of the towing industry. And some of that “adequate time” must be spent on deck. How much? Again, it largely depends on the individual, as well as what kind(s) of work the tug or towboat they’re on is doing and how busy they are. But you can’t get around the fact that you’ll never be worth a damn in the wheelhouse if you don’t personally possess the skills to be a competent deckhand first, and you aren’t likely to learn them thoroughly in less than a year or two if you’re working on a conventional wire-hawser boat. Patience, Grasshopper! Speed kills.

Part of the problem is ego-driven. Many licensed officers, maybe even a majority, will balk when faced with the reality of having to start over again as a deckhand, especially as they get older. Having no experience in towing operations, they don’t see any good reason why they should have to take what amounts, in their reckoning, to a demotion. Pride can make it really tough for people to accept this necessary process. But in an important sense it is a demotion: deckhand pay, or the lack of it, is a major contributing factor. In an industry screaming for people holding licenses (500 GRT and up) that are expensive, difficult to get, and in high demand, does it really make any sense to scare those people off by insisting that they start back at the very bottom financially too? Careful screening of the bullshit artists can help a company avoid what I like to call the “paper tigers” , the big license-holders that are all talk and no seamanship. In either case resentment and frustration are usually the end result, with most giving up long before making it.

The main cause of this is the inflexibility built into the 2-watch system itself, along with the lack of an official training slot. It doesn’t allow for any gray areas: both the captain and mate (or pilot) must be fully qualified in their own right for a given operation to effectively comply with the 12-hour rule. This leaves no room for the mate trainee who needs some unknown and variable period of training time before being moved up to full mate status. These ‘tweeners, more advanced than a tug A/B Deckhand in some regards but less so in others, need a place to exist in until they’re ready to perform all the duties and maneuvers of a full mate.

But for the last decade most towing companies have shown little inclination to put their money where their mouth is and accept the reality of paying for mate trainees as a “temporary” full-time position. They’ve largely shown only a willingness to steal already-experienced personnel from each other, rather than adapt to the changing times and doing whatever it took to grow and advance their own talent from within while also attracting talent from without. Recently, in some cases, this has begun to change as some of the medium to larger-sized companies have formed partnerships with training institutions such as the Workboat Academy program at the Pacific Maritime Institute & MITAGS, and the Crew Advancement Program at GMATS / Kings Point, among others. Most of the small companies are way behind in this regard but, on the other hand, most of them will also accept “just” a towing license, which can still be obtained via the hawespipe.

The effective closure of the hawespipe for STCW-compliant licenses over 200 GRT (500 & 1,600 GRT) can be attributed to the expensive and burdensome new requirements for them. Now many weeks of school and great expense are required to obtain them. But even this burden, unfair and unnecessary as it may be, is mostly self-imposed: in the vast majority of cases those licenses aren’t needed at all and the existing Master or Mate (Pilot) of Towing Vessels licenses can serve perfectly well. It’s a shame that the industry never really embraced their own licensing system and the Designated Examiners that drive it. But it’s never too late to change!

In the past, very few mariners lateraled over into the towing sector. Either you were a traditional hawespiper, working your way up from the deck after several years as a deckhand, or you were an academy graduate that essentially had to do the same thing. The main difference between them, formal education aside, being that the academy graduates had spent four years in school first and had the student loan bills to prove it. There was, and in most respects still is, no real advantage in attending a traditional 4-year academy if you’re “only” going into the towing sector.

But now we’re in a different time. If the towing companies really want to tap into the pool of mariners from the other sectors to help relieve the shortages of towing vessel officers then they need to bite the bullet and be willing to pay a decent wage to carefully screened and chosen candidates while they put their time in learning the ropes aboard the tugs and towboats. It won’t be quick, but it will help solve the problem if given time to work.

And, for their part, the already-licensed mariners from the other sectors need to get over themselves, put away their pride, and be willing to hit the deck running, without all the know-it-all attitude and bullshit we so often see. You’ll never make it to the wheelhouse otherwise. Get this: neither I nor my peers will let your hands anywhere near the throttles until they’re well acquainted with, and skilled at, the challenges of putting up, adjusting, and making off a 3-part headline to a barge after throwing a strike with a monkey’s fist in strong winds, or some other tricky deck seamanship evolution, and that’s just the way it is.


  1. Enlightening article; your points very well taken. It still amazes me that vessel operating companies don’t do more to solve the qualified personnel problem beyond hand-wringing and lip-service. It seems that maritime labor unions can take some of the blame as well by not acting advantage ofin their mutual interests and existing relationship to provide some sort of “bridge” mechanism for mariners wanting to make the lateral transition from deep sea to towing vessels

  2. …continued from previous which was inadvertently submitted prior to completion…
    I meant to add that unions should act in their mutual interest and take advantage of their existing relationships to aid mariners wanting to make the transition from other sectors to the towing industry with financial and training assistance.
    In any case, the qualified personnel shortage may ultimately be solved by the looming recession.

  3. The whole manning situation needs an overhaul. Why is it that regulations require a three watch system on a small tanker but if you tow an unmanned tank barge of the same capacity at the end of a wire only a two watch system is required?

    I don’t know why anyone in their right mind would switch from deep sea to towing. I’ve worked the 12-6 watch when I was younger, I think it would kill me today.

    As far as deep sea not wanting to work on deck I suspect that they were not happy with what they were required to do offshore either. Many younger mates just can not comprehend that making a living could possibly that difficult. Some believe they are being harnessed when they are asked/told to stand a proper watch.

  4. […] Master of Towing Vessels Association Forum has a summary of why your deck officer license is not enough to get a job on a towboat with “Hit the Deck!“. […]

  5. […] Jack box I'll second the opinion expressed in Capt. Brucato's post, and recommend the posts Hit The Deck and Back On Deck from the MTVA forum for further […]

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