Posted by: towmasters | December 31, 2010

Tankerman’s Nightmare: The Ship From Hell

In Bad Bunkering: Let us pray (for no mishaps), the Hawsepiper, returning to a favorite subject, riffs on the design flaws and safety compromises that certain vessels bring to a frequent and unavoidable operation: loading bunker fuel. I share his sense of professional disdain when I see such poor design, whether it be on a ship, another tug, the barges themselves, or the docks and terminals we tie up at. Poor design, and shoddy workmanship, make everything harder and less safe than it could easily be if just a little more thought and resources were put into it.

In the bunkering biz the box and reefer ships are usually the most troublesome because of their hull forms. This combination RoRo/LoLo design might well be the worst ever…..the Hawespiper has circled the fuel connection in red and you can clearly see that it is well aft of the point at which the hull begins to curve away (the “turn of the bilge”). While this hull form might be necessary for speed, efficiency, stability, sea-keeping, etc., surely the connection could have been located somewhere in the middle third of the ship. After all, fueling is pretty important: without it ships, and their cargo, go nowhere. Spills, meanwhile, are verboten. There’s a big contradiction here between our zero tolerance of pollution incidents and the design and construction of these ships.

Above photo courtesy of, via Hawsepiper.

This smallish tanker, in comparison, has a much better layout: a more-or-less central connection and plenty of places to put up lines with good leads, and actual chocks and bitts to fairlead and secure them…..

… plenty of flat hull length to lie against.

Any ship design which leaves a bunker barge with only half (or less) of it’s hull length overlapping with the flat section of the ship’s hull is, by definition, unsafe. Given the zero-tolerance culture for spills that has emerged in some parts of the world, and especially in ours (but, sadly, not all), you’d think that this would simply not be allowed. But you’d be wrong. And if you’ve been in this business long enough to have shed your greenhorn status then you know what would’ve happened to the tankermen on the barge (as well as the tug’s captain and, possibly, mate) if anything went wrong that was even remotely related to the half-assed tie-up: they’d be royally screwed.  The first words from the authorities would be “If you knew it wasn’t safe, why’d you do it anyway, blah, blah, blah…..?” , even as these operations occur in plain view of those same authorities who could call a stop to it if they perceived the risk level to be unacceptably high for such a routine activity. Therein lies the risk-assessment trap: if nothing goes wrong the risk level is usually deemed to be fine; if disaster strikes then the risk level you accepted, and your assessment of it, will be retroactively declared unacceptable. You lose! And there would be nothing you could say in your own defense that would help you, either.

In the Hawsepiper’s case it appears that everyone involved did the best they could with the crappy cards they were dealt and it all turned out okay this time, just as it does the vast majority of the time, despite the challenges and the pushing of one’s luck. But that doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea to do it or that similar results can be expected every time. How routine is this kind of stuff? The quote from the tug’s crewman is both priceless and dead on: “Of all the shitty jobs I’ve done, this one is by far the most recent.”

So where in hell is the adult supervision here? That’s the most important question.

When the Coast Guard, or any other agency, tries to push the solution of way-above-our-paygrade problems like this down to the lowest level (the tug’s officers and/or the tankermen, as well as the ship’s crew), or even to the middle (the bunkering operators), they’re just kicking the can down the road. Either they don’t comprehend the fact that in the real world the power to refuse even an obviously unsafe job in a situation like this is hugely overrated, and ultimately ineffective, or they’re willfully ignoring it. For both the vessel crews and the operating companies, refusing the job because of a marginal tie-up is DOA in most cases. Even in the best of times this is an extremely competitive business, and these are certainly not the best of times. If Co. X won’t do it, for whatever reason(s), Co.’s Y & Z surely will. If this is going to be solved it will only happen if action is taken at a higher level. But it would be most helpful if it was remembered that the many of the critical details of how to do it safely can be learned from those who actually have to do it: the mariners.

Potential solutions? First, all classification societies could and should refuse to class any vessel design that doesn’t have a demonstrably safe and practical means of receiving a bunker barge alongside, and keeping it properly secured to actual deck fittings designed for that purpose as the vessel’s respective drafts change while cargo operations progress. Since the classification societies also must “compete” for vessel tonnage to class, which could force them to compromise their standards, they would need the protection of an international law requiring a  reasonable minimum standard so as to prevent unfair competition. This would require the attention of the IMO. Second, the marine underwriters and P&I Clubs should refuse to insure them if they don’t meet an acceptable minimum standard, or else charge exorbitant premiums in exchange for accepting the increased risk. This step alone would go a long way towards encouraging better design and eliminating, or at least reducing, the problem. The vessel’s charterers, who have a big stake in the safe operation of the vessels carrying their valuable cargo, could also insist on better arrangements.

Want a good shoreside example of poor design? Those of you familiar with operating in the Long Island Sound ports no doubt have experienced the “bollards” at the old Wyatt’s Pink Tanks in New Haven (now Magellan). These “bollards” are actually I-beams with pins welded to them. As one would expect, mooring lines placed around steel objects with numerous right angles tend not to last very long. Nor would they aid you in staying attached to the dock when heavy strains are placed on those lines during bad weather. The first time I ever saw them, while throwing the lines over them as a deckhand, I remember thinking “They’ve got to be kidding!” Nope, they weren’t, and they’re still there today as far as I know. Chafing gear would help, of course, but who can throw a line when the eye is encumbered with chafing gear thick enough to be effective? It’s the dumbest fitting arrangement I’ve ever seen at a dock, and that’s a pretty high hurdle to clear at this point.

Regardless of where the needed changes start from, they need to start somewhere. What say you, Clay Maitland? The recent Permeable To A Fault post on his blog, by Michael Grey, describes a much more dangerous container ship design flaw. Obviously, there is plenty of room for improvement.



  1. Thanks for filling out this subject so wholly- I was still
    a little burned out from the job as I wrote, but was inspired to
    share by the experience. The only reason we were able to perform
    this job safely was through effective communication among all
    parties, and the ability for everyone involved to work as a team
    was a principle component in being able to confidently green-light
    an oil transfer. As difficult as this litigious environment is,
    almost every action and decision I make as a mariner is guided by a
    deep and abiding fear of getting hauled into court. As a lowly
    tankerman, from moment one, we’re reminded that mishaps involving
    oils don’t need to pass any sort of litmus test for intent, action,
    negligence or even the commission of a crime for someone to get
    locked up. As such, fear makes for an effective contraceptive when
    it comes to taking risks,to someone raised in that environment. Not
    only can something bad happen when one sticks his neck out, the
    punishment for failure is Old-Testament-style disproportionate. I
    agree that a risk-assessment trap exists, in choosing to proceed in
    any less-than-idyllic situation, whether it’s running through Hell
    Gate in marginal weather, or lashing a fuel barge to a convex boat
    hull. This is a situation where it would seem beneficial to take a
    page from SMS manuals and actually form a working JHA that reflects
    real-life situations like this. I don’t suppose that there’s enough
    commonality in these types of jobs to formalize a set of rules that
    can eliminate the need to rely on luck or personal skill in the
    execution of a safely-run job. I have to believe that we can
    improve the odds of success, even if only marginally so, by
    fostering a guided decisionmaking model that allows the responsible
    party to make the best of a less-than ideal situation without
    tacitly encouraging the acceptance of relying on luck to finish a
    job safely.

  2. Good post and thanks to Paul B for taking the time and effort to document this. The naval architect term for that flat section is parallel mid body, knowing the length and location sometimes is an issue when mooring on some of the marginal RO/RO piers, mooring operations which involves some of the same issues you have mentioned here.

    These ships might have more problems then poor placement of the bunker station, one of them rolled over at the at Verrebroek pier in Antwerp a couple of years ago.

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