Posted by: towmasters | October 7, 2009

Communication Breakdown: Standardized Commands Will Improve Tractor Tug Performance & Minimize Errors

For all you tractor tug jockeys out there, here’s a damned good article from the Oct/Nov 2009 issue of Professional Mariner Magazine. As is often the case, different people will say (and mean) the same thing in varying (read: inconsistent) ways. Sometimes this inconsistency in the choice of words may even come from the same individual on the same job. When this happens misunderstandings can easily occur which may lead to groundings, damage to piers or other vessels, oil spills and personnel injuries. Capt.’s Greg Brooks and Victor Schisler are attempting to reduce some of these miscues and improve operational safety and effectiveness for tractor tugs by standardizing the terminology that ship pilots use to give them maneuvering orders. Another key element is their recommendation to eliminate the use of words that may sound alike but have completely different meanings.

Their efforts are worthy of praise and you can check out Towing Solutions for more info.

It should go without saying that this problem is by no means particular to tractor tugs, but I’ll say it anyway. A lack of effective communication, directly or indirectly, is the root cause of many mishaps and everyone can improve their chances of safely completing any given evolution by continually working to fine tune the flow of information in both directions.

My biggest wish when landing and sailing barges? That the person talking to me on the radio thoroughly understands the importance of timing, clarity and being concise.

  • Incorrect & not helpful: “Well, uh, you’re coming in more or less even, I guess, uh, and it looks like, uh, I don’t know, uh, maybe about, uh, 10 feet or so. Oh, and you’re, uh, closing kind of quick too, uh, so, like, you know, uh, you might want to think about…..” (deckhand’s “flow” interrupted by the sound of screeching metal / splintering pilings and much shouting in the background). Sadly, I hear it being done like this all the time.
  • Correct & very helpful: “10 feet up and down, closing fast.” For dramatic effect some may substitute the term “coming in hot” instead. Besides having infinitely more panache, it also conveys that needed sense of urgency that may help avert calamity. Translation: “you need to slow the hell down as quickly as possible or we’re going to wipe out this dock!”

In the first sequence, by the time this information gets to me it may well be too late to do anything about it. Lots of paperwork to do…..

In the second sequence I will probably have plenty of time to slow my excessive closing speed and/or have my assist lay down some serious assist tug mojo and make it look like I had it planned out perfectly all along.


  1. […] Towmasters: the Master of Towing Vessels Assoc. Forum has “Communication Breakdown: Standardized Commands Will Improve Tractor Tug Performance & Minimize E…“. […]

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