Posted by: towmasters | January 17, 2010

When Is It A Tug, When Is It An ATB, & What About The TOAR? – Part I

It sounds like a simple question: when is a tug a tug? Since the ATB unit has come on the scene the answer isn’t quite so simple anymore, and it has brought new challenges to the training and licensing of deck officers as well as the manning of the vessels. I’ve no doubt that there are a number of mariners out there who’ll dispute my definition of what is and is not a towing vessel, but it seems that the debate has at least gotten started and at least one old-school type who had previously disagreed with me has since come around to the idea that this is an area that needs to be addressed. The debate needs to continue, and experienced towing vessel officers need to be deeply involved so that the right decisions are made and the regulations reflect reality while preserving an adequate level of safety, professional qualifications and minimum-experience levels. This absolutely cannot be left up to the Coast Guard, the TSAC and AWO, they of the 30-Day Wonder debacle.

The heart of the issue is this: should Articulated Tug & Barge Units (ATB’s) continue to be regarded as towing vessels for the purposes of licensing and/or the completion of a full Towing Officer Assessment Record (TOAR)? It is my personal view that the answer to that question, in most cases, is no. ATB’s, (specifically, true purpose-built ATB’s that cannot normally be operated as a conventional towing vessel) belong in either a towing vessel sub-category, or in their own category altogether separate from towing vessels. If they remain in the towing vessel category they need to have their own limited-TOAR, specific to that vessel or vessel class and the equipment and systems on it. If they become their own category then a set of ATB practical assessments will need to be created, also with vessel-specific details.

Conventional towing vessels are, by definition, multi-purpose and capable of engaging in a wide variety of work activities. Most purpose-built ATB’s, whether 1st or 2nd generation, are simply not capable of practically and safely engaging in those activities, despite some of the optimistic claims made by their designers or owners, and there are very few exceptions to be found. If you’re at the point where you accept the idea that the skill sets required of those operating ATB’s is different than those operating conventional tugs then the next step is determining which is which.

Keeping that in mind, is the Nicole Leigh Reinauer…..

… of the first of the original wave of ATB’s…..

…..also a multi-purpose tug? Nah, so let’s not argue too much about the obvious and move on. While it is true that, in some very limited circumstances and only with someone that has a strong conventional-tug background, it’s possible to fake it a bit and take the barge alongside or tow it around the harbor just for show. But that’s just showing off: the “tug” wasn’t designed or intended for that use, nor could someone without many years of experience pull it off. You can shovel a bunch of dirt or gravel into the trunk of any car and haul it around, but that doesn’t make it an F-150. The regulations of the present and future need to be crafted and continuously adjusted for the mariners, vessels and the required qualifications of the present and future, not the ancient past. Forcing mariners on this kind of ATB to complete a full TOAR is pointless because it can’t honestly be done, and all that continuing to require it accomplishes is to create a serious advancement bottleneck for those trying to move up. No one gains anything from this and the regulations need to be changed in a sane way to allow for the technological changes in our industry.

Unfortunately, as with many things, there exists a gray area that could (and likely would) become problematic for the typical one-size-fits-all approach commonly associated with any type of regulatory activity. The problem-area is not enormous, but neither is it insubstantial: when what used to be a conventional tug is converted into an ATB, a.k.a. a pin boat, how should it be classified? This is a phenomenon that has so far been confined, as far as I know, to the northeastern United States. Three of the big players on the East Coast, New York Harbor-based K-Sea Transportation, Reinauer Transportation, and Bouchard Transportation, have converted a significant number of their older conventional tugs into ATB’s of varying form and capability, and more will follow.

Take K-Sea’s Houma, shown here towing a barge alongside bow-first in New York Harbor’s Upper Bay.

You can clearly see from both photos that this is a run-of-the-mill bunkering operation, the tug made up for going shipside with the best available maneuverability.

But what wasn’t apparent in the previous two photos is…..

…..the fact that the Houma is an ATB in disguise: a conventional tug that was converted into a pin-boat but doesn’t appear any different to the casual observer unless you look carefully. Here you can clearly see the JAK-System pin…..

…..housed in a fendered “knuckle” that isn’t terribly big and doesn’t protrude excessively, as many of them do. This feature allowed the rest of the original fendering to be retained, thereby allowing conventional alongside towing to be done without a problem. They can also push conventional barges around with their push gear or tow on the hawser as they’ve always done. This isn’t really just an ATB, it’s a conventional tug that happens to have pins that don’t compromise the other towing functions.

Here the Bouchard Girls serves as another example of a converted ATB-hybrid design: equipped with the Intercon pins that make her an ATB, but also having a normally-fendered bow for pushing. The pins are completely recessed into the hull (no knuckle) so they won’t interfere with alongside towing…..

…..and otherwise she’s all tug…..

…..with a double-drum towing machine, Texas bar, fully-functional upper and lower pilothouses and heavy wrap-around fendering. This is truly a tug with pins that can still do it all.

Then there’s the case of the JoAnne Reinauer, one of several conventional tugs…..

…..that underwent similar significant modifications, inside and out, and was pinned. With no lower pilothouse, no towing machine, no after controls on the boat deck, and a substantially altered hull form…..

…..that was modified to fit a specific barge, it’s very difficult to sell this as any kind of real towing vessel. Sure, it’s got tow bitts, an emergency hawser and a working capstan on the back deck, but could they ever be used in a real emergency? Lets see the hawser be effectively deployed and utilized while on open waters, in typical-and-worse weather and sea conditions consistent with the routes normally traversed. Can you imagine being up in that pilothouse while out of the notch in even moderate weather? The g-forces from being whipped around up there would be intense and if you weren’t strapped into a securely bolted-down chair with a 4-point harness, possibly fatal. Let’s face it, it has ceased to be a real tugboat and is now solely a pin boat. It should be regarded as such. The newly-converted Dace Reinauer…..

… another example of this species.

Then we go back to the Ellen S. Bouchard. It’s now a pin boat with fully-recessed Intercon pins…..


…’s got real bow and hull fendering, upper and lower houses…..

…..a towing machine, a Texas bar and old-school wire push gear.

There is no doubt in my mind that the Houma, Bouchard Girls and the Ellen S. Bouchard should be treated like what they are: conventional tugboats. The whole gamut of the towing skill-set is needed by anyone operating these converted boats: towing on the hawser (wire or fiber), stringing it out and shortening up, turning on the barge, breaking stern tow and picking it up alongside, towing alongside stern or bow-first, getting in and out of push gear, assist jobs… short, the works. But they also have pins, which technically make them ATB’s. The Nicole and JoAnne also have pins, but it’s a mistake to focus primarily on that so forget about the pins for a moment. What is the boat (any boat), not to mention the crew, capable of doing? What could the boat be used for? Does it have a towing machine? Does the towing machine actually work? Is the equipment package required for conventional towing aboard, serviceable, and does the crew know how to use it? Those are the real factors that should be used to determine what license and skills the deck officers need in an era where the lines between vessel types have been substantially blurred.  Each new or converted tug must have its capabilities and equipment package evaluated so that it can be assigned to the right category. Some will fall in between and need their own modified rules, and that’s where the local Coast Guard Officer in Charge Marine Inspection (OCMI) has the authority to make a judgment call, preferably with the advice and consent of a knowledgeable board of towing vessel officers. What we don’t need is an arbitrary or basically false categorization made for convenience’s sake, to avoid important safety and licensing regulations, or because there was a lack of imagination and knowledge of the towing industry on the part of the regulators.

More to follow…..


  1. Excellent article, well written to back up your point. The last paragraph/ section sums it up well.
    I must say that after reading this and being a previous naysayer and against the specialized TOAR’s I am much more willing to accept thhe argument in favor and give in, although still grumbling.
    We must still monitor the process carefully to ensure that tugboatmen are not gradually pushed out of the ATB niche by those that want to turn them into tankers and man them with tanker personnel.

  2. Excellent coverage and a start to determining what an ATB really is. What is a tug and how do you get towing seatime on something that looks and works like a tanker.

  3. A very well written and knowledgeable arcticle and Capt Loch is spot on. ATB’s came about as a manning issue with tanker vs tugboat crewing. They are completely different issues.

  4. If we are to go down this road, then how do you qualify those working on actual “push” boats. Most river “push” tugs are never on a tow line and don’t have towing winches. I think it would be wrong to have several sub catagories as this will make it more difficult for us all. I work for a company which has both conventional and ATB units. This could severly limit crew movement and your own licensing process as we don’t always get to choose which vessel we are on. You could possibly lose what you may already have in lou of recency. I understand the concerns but I really feel this would hurt our industry.

  5. I do understand where the author is coming from but as one of those from the industry who was in on the original licensing rulemaking and design of the TOAR’s as a member of TSAC, I believe he is overreaching a bit. The TOAR process was never intended as a tool that certifies every towing vessel operator as capable of doing any and all functions on any kind of tugboat. Instead it is a minimum set of competencies which every person operating a towing vessel should have. It is still up to the companies to vet the qualifications of each prospective officer to ensure that he or she can perform the job as needed by that company. I am particularly opposed to separating the requirements for an ATB vs a wire boat. All ATB tugs are capable of towing and meet ABS towline criteria. Would they be unwieldy and uncomfortable. Yes. Are they unsafe. No. Any ATB officer may be called upon to tow their barge in an emergency and should have at least the minimum knowledge of the mechanics of doing so. Many ATB operators pre-connect the emergency towing gear so that in the event of a pin or bowram failure, the tug can exit the notch and already have the towline connected. Those that do not have the tow gear already hooked up are kidding themselves as to the reliability of their connection system. The TOAR preamble permits many of the competencies to be signed off by orally questioning the candidate and assuring the DE that they have the appropriate knowledge. There are only a limited number of critical assessments that have to be physically witnessed by the DE. The intent of the regulation was that the captains who are training an individual are also the DE’s. The DE has the ability to assess the person over an extended period of time. There is no need to limit the careers of ATB or tow wire officers by creating new barriers. As for the 30 day familiarization period that is so criticized, it is intended to give experienced mariners from other industry segments an avenue into the towing industry. It is not the be all end all document that says that a ship captain can hip a barge through the kills, but that same individual could navigate a tow from NY to Florida with an appropriate familiarization period. Even a new graduate of an academy could navigate an ATB from sea buoy to sea buoy. Most of those boats have three officers and one of them would handle in port movements. It is wrong to try and too narrowly define towing segments. Remember, the TOAR is minimum standard, not the final arbitor of competency. I welcome comments.
    Jeff Parker
    Former tug captain, TSAC chairman and current industry professional.

  6. Towmasters,

    The points raised in the article along with photo support and your reasoning seems to make sense however, I think a movement to limit the skill sets that aspiring officers are exposed to is unwise. A prudent mariner, especially in our industry segment, should have at least a minimum exposure (not necessarily demonstrate skill mastery) to the various forms of towing that are available. If nothing else, recognizing the benefits and/or limitations while engaged in towing over the various forms will offer an awareness to what other vessels they maybe meeting or passing are going through and what they are up against. It seems to me that an aspiring officer would also accept a position on any vessel rather then limiting themselves to ONLY a select few vessels of a specific type. Also, the requirements of the TOAR in its present form does not ask too much of the candidate.

    An officer who aspires to be the Captain of an ATB should be able to take a barge that is either in push gear or alongside and transition to towing astern. After all, this is exactly what they would have to do in the event of a malfunction.

    Lastly, a majority of the skippers on the Reinauer, K-Sea and other ATBs are the most experienced tow line masters in their respective company fleets.

    I find it hard to write this response and not use the word “limit” time and time again and as a result, think it would be unwise to create a “limited TOAR” track for true ATBs and their operators.

  7. […] keep reading » […]

  8. Jeff Parker wrote:
    “The TOAR preamble permits many of the competencies to be signed off by orally questioning the candidate and assuring the DE that they have the appropriate knowledge. There are only a limited number of critical assessments that have to be physically witnessed by the DE…”

    I am not sure that this interpretation is correct. I would consider all of Part D (Manuevering) of the TOAR to be critical, and per the assessor guidance that TSAC developed, in every task in that section the candidate must perform the task. While the guidance does call for the candidate to DESCRIBE the appropriate actions, it also calls for the Designated Examiner to OBSERVE the candidate perform the task. So a legitimate issue exists if a particular vessel does not routinely perform, and a license candidate is unable to demonstrate, one of the tasks in the TOAR.

  9. I don’t know where to begin. Captain Parker’s comments sound a bit more simplistic than I would have expected from a former member of TSAC. Dismissing the idea as ill-advised is short-sighted in my opinion. We need to discuss this and form a consensus. A reasonable solution is still to be determined.
    I raised the same objections until I saw through the roadblocks a wheelhouse candidate now faces. The talented individual who can safely handle an ATB would obviously need to garner experience aboard a conventional tug to become at least familiar with the “alongside and towing astern” modes he’ll need to call on eventually. But that said, with fewer conventional platforms available, where does this candidate acquire the exposure/experience if those vessels are rare in their own fleet? Should he quit and move to another fleet in the hopes of gaining the necessary experience?
    Are we going to see a flurry of activity creating schools and simulators for tugboats? How realistic we get about this issue is key. The 50-something Towing Masters are not going to be here for long. We need to figure out a method for getting more than just sea-buoy-to-sea buoy mates cultivated. The cost of inaction will be passed along as each ATB will necessarily be conned by an outside docking master when in-harbor, no different from the ships.
    It’s a fact that the odds will catch-up with an ATB and the connecting system will fail, and I agree the officers should be prepared, but we’re not talking about operational procedures. We’re discussing career path impediments.
    ATB license candidates should be well aware the path is a to a limited ticket, but once acquired it is an incremental advance to the next level. Although I hold an “oceans” towing master’s endorsement, I would still need to spend time on the Western Rivers to acquire the Western Rivers endorsement, no less than a man coming from the Western Rivers system to spend time doing coastal towing and ship assist work would to acquire a similar towing endorsement.
    I won’t address the 30-day wonder rule any more than to opine that it’s an ill-conceived back-door and state that no candidate will see a completed TOAR from me in thirty days.
    As for the TOAR indicating a measure of competence, that is exactly what it is and attests. Since Captain Parker was part of the genesis of the TOAR, he should consider what we perceive it to be.
    If I have “signed off” on a candidate’s TOAR, I’m stating that he or she demonstrated competence executing the maneuvers represented and articulated in the TOAR. I would agree that it’s not a statement of expertise, but of competence demonstrated under supervision.
    I see no limitation being imposed on “wire-boatmen”, by definition they would be able to complete a standard TOAR and once endorsed, step aboard an ATB and assume control with a short period of adjustment to the “always pushing” setup and using the pin system (whatever kind it may be).
    I agree with Mr. Cavo’s interpretation of Part D of the TOAR, this is exactly the point of why the 30 day rule is unrealistic, the skills must be demonstrated under supervision. Unless the conditions for the skill are met, it doesn’t qualify. A calm day with light wind can’t be used for high wind maneuvering sign-offs. There are so many critical skills, it’s unlikely anyone can claim to have completed the entire menu in a month, no one is that busy.

    I don’t believe Captain Milton’s article is off the mark at all. I think he’s right on target. It’s a fact the ATB is here to stay. So how do we train and qualify individuals who don’t have access to conventional towing vessels or dual mode ATB’s within their respective fleets? The solution isn’t fully fleshed out yet, but I think we get closer to a workable one by continuing the discussion.

  10. The K-SEA Tug shown is a poor example of hip towing. That boat should have been positioned further aft on the barge, and also should have put up a head line. A proper tow line should have been led aft instead of strait accross on the bow.

    I’ve seen a good number of Tug and Barges come into the port of Savannah. And most of the Masters, and Mates on those boats are pretty good mariners. Some lash up, most don’t. The ATB’s, are as far as I can tell, are still configured so that they can hip tow if needed.

    That being said, I don’t think these boats should be put into a different class. The people operating these boats should have adequate experience in operating this equipment before taking on the task without supervision. I think that any company that would turn a Master loose on one of these Towing vessels without some period of evaluation by an accomplished Master on the same equipment would be foolish. Most companies require that a new Master prove his ability before turning him/her loose anyway. The companies that don’t are negligent. Even in the trucking business an employer has to have a competent person give a new hire a road test.

    And no, the 30 day wonder has not ever been a standard in the Port that I work out of.

    Before you convince yourselves that ATB’s need to be in another licensing structure, consider how much time a person holding a Master of Towing Vessels has to invest in getting that license. I would put almost any MOTV Master up against any 500 Ton Master any time any where. But thats just my limited opinion of only 21 years of working on commercial boats.

    I think the USCG and Congress have gotten it right on the MOTV License, and the STCW requirements. And their opinion of what is and isn’t a Towing Vessel.


    Moran Captain

    MOTV, Near Coastal.

  11. Great article and great pictures for the article.

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