Posted by: towmasters | August 9, 2009

Getting Tripped: Roll The Video…

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…..


  1. Here’s my 2 cents. I had a similar situation southbound on the Hudson River at the turn under the Bear Mountain Bridge. The mate was using the autopilot to steer the tow as we were passing Iona Island (first mistake). He called a northbound unit that had just cleared Jones Point and arranged meeting on “2 whistles”, the north-bounder was headed for the Bear Mountain wharf. Rather than hand steering the tow at this point, with the mike still in his hand he reached for the auto-pilot and tried to make a course correction (second mistake). The auto-pilot was an older magnetic Sperry unit and when the mike came into proximity of the compass card, the tug sheered hard right. At 10 knots, getting in front of the tow was not an option. I made it up to the wheelhouse in time to see the barge going by us at a 90 degree angle. I took the helm and mid-shipped the rudder to allow the tug to fall alongside the tow with one helluva bump. The engineer and deckhand had already reached the stern controls and were rendering wire as we fetched up. There wasn’t any chance to recover the tow by straightening up ahead of it, it would have been suicide.. Falling alongside we were able to slow and spin the unit without tripping and actually completed a 360 degree turn at Iona Island without losing the tug or tow, the operator on the north-bounder was as surprised as we were, lucky the way it worked out. There’s no canned answer for this situation. It was good fortune then, and though this incident had a very different end, I’m glad to see no one was seriously injured or killed. Kudos to the kayaker.

  2. When I’m not at my real job in the evil empire (USCG HQ) I teach whitewater kayaking, including rescuing “swimmers” who’ve flipped and exited their boats, maybe I need to start including how to rescue swimmers from slightly bigger boats.

  3. What I’d really like to see you do is to teach a tug crew to do an eskimo roll with the tug. That would be pretty damned impressive! In the meantime, maybe we shouldn’t refer to the kayakers as speed bumps anymore…..

  4. There’s a series of still photos that went around a few years ago showing that, sort of. They show a tug hitting a bridge in high water, rolling over and passing under the bridge, and rolling upright on the other side:

    I think that’s Bear Bryant in the foreground of the 2nd pic.

  5. […] the Master of Towing Vessels Assoc. Forum has comments on a towing accident with “Getting Tripped: Roll The Video…..” and includes the following dramatic […]

  6. […] For more on this subject check out Death On The River Clyde, More Thoughts On The River Clyde Tragedy…, Do You Live In A Barn?, and Getting Tripped: Roll The Video… […]

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