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…..
…..one 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…..
…..is 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…..
…..it’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…..in 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…..