Posted by: towmasters | May 23, 2011

Emergency Towing: What Do You Do? – Part I

Okay, so you’re underway at sea in crappy weather on you’re fancy new ATB (or not-so-new ATB) and the worst has happened: the pins have broken off/melted/spontaneously retracted/etc. and you’re getting slammed around hard in the barge’s notch as you struggle to remain in control of the situation. This is not a drill: you’re “going on the hawser” whether you like it or not, right now, even if no one on the crew has ever done it, including the captain.

Yes, you read that right. Being the captain of an ATB “towing vessel” these days doesn’t necessarily mean that the individual has any real practical experience with traditional hawser towing. As time passes and ATB-experience-only crews continue to proliferate and expand there will be a growing number of these vessels were few if any of the crew have ever actually towed anything, ever. Eventually almost all ATB’s will be this way. How could it be otherwise when mariners can start out their career on ATB’s and advance while never working on anything but ATB’s? Also, with the ATB increasingly becoming the preferred means of petroleum transportation, opportunities within a given company to get any cross-training in conventional towing operations range from nonexistent to marginal and rapidly decreasing. You can see right where this trend leads: directly to a point where you have a majority of towing vessel deck officers on near coastal routes that never learned how to tow. It’s nobody’s fault, it just simply is.

Just as important is the acknowledgement of an uncomfortable fact: all skills have a shelf life, and if you don’t use them you gradually lose them. So even if the entire crew had significant experience with conventional towing in the past, and specifically with hawser towing, at some indeterminate point their skills will have atrophied to the point where real competence will be, at best, questionable. It’s probably safe to say that in most cases when an individual has gone a full license-renewal cycle (5 years) without having engaged in any conventional towing activities, genuine and current proficiency is long gone. Just like muscle memory, there is skill memory, and those unused skills can eventually be regained after a period of putting them back to use again. But it is foolish and dangerous to think that someone can just jump right back into the saddle without missing a beat and have anything more than a fraction of their former skill level. What kind of knife is the most dangerous? A dull one, and it’s the same way with practical skills in safety-sensitive jobs.

No doubt that is a hard pill to swallow ego-wise for many of the highly-experienced, old-school captains and mates of the “tugasaurus” generation that is aging and shrinking all the while, but it is nonetheless an essential truth. If a reasonable level of safety is to be maintained, not to mention professional standards, then this fact must be faced up to and accommodated. No one should be released unsupervised back into the world of conventional towing without first having had enough time and opportunity to regain and re-hone the skills needed to do it safely.

As originally conceived, the emergency-barge-control/recovery regulations (contained in 33 CFR § 155.230) that emerged in the aftermath of the completely-avoidable Scandia/North Cape fiasco in 1996 (click here and scroll down for the 1998 NTSB report) called for an annual live drill for recovering or arresting a loose barge. The Coast Guard was out in front of the issue and got it right: you must prove, not assume, that your system works and that your personnel know how to use it. But unfortunately the way they were originally conceived is not how they ended up. The industry complained loudly and in the end even that relatively-modest but eminently reasonable requirement was gutted from the final rule because it was deemed as impractical, dangerous or overly-disruptive to operations. Better to just hope it somehow all works out in the end, I guess. So instead you can just sit in the galley for a crew safety meeting and discuss what everyone would do during a “table-top” drill. Will it actually work? No one can say for sure because it never has to be tested and definitively proven (or disproven) as both practical and effective. It was short-sighted for the industry to take that stance back then and it’s unwise to leave it that way now, especially since the ongoing generational change in the wheelhouse means that fewer and fewer mariners are left that have the experience and ability to successfully perform this critical function. So it goes…

And don’t scoff at the idea of a pin-system failure occurring. The reality is that anything we humans build, from space shuttles to bridges to blowout preventers, can be expected to fail, often in spectacular fashion, at some point. When it happens everyone behaves as if it was some huge, unforeseeable surprise, but in reality it’s just plain inevitable. There have already been several pin-system failures and malfunctions. Do you have a viable back-up plan for this eventuality? Will you and you’re crew be truly ready (or at least as ready as you realistically can be) if and when the pins fail or malfunction on your boat? So far none of the failures have resulted in a major spill or loss-of-life tragedy, but riding on luck is not a good plan.

Anyway, in the interests of stoking debate, spreading ideas, and improving industry standards and best-practices, an example of an emergency towing system on a large ATB is presented for your consideration.

The tug hawser’s eye pre-rigged on the tow bitt…

…and through the stern staple…

…before being led to the port-side bulwarks and…

…forward and up to the boat deck…

…and up to the barge’s stern, neatly lashed down all along the way and ready to be deployed.

This is the end of the barge’s hawser. Presumably, the crew connects the two hawsers together with a properly-secured towing shackle prior to heading out to sea.

The barge’s hawser continues forward where it’s connected to the wire portion of the towing assembly…

…at the port quarter.

From what can be seen of it, the emergency towing assembly they have generally seems okay from a distance. But there was one glaring shortcoming visible immediately: no chafing gear for the soft-line hawser on the “tug” where it goes through the staple and over the stern. It surely wouldn’t last very long without substantial protection, and it would be very unlikely that you’d have the time or ability to put it on in mid-emergency unless it was slick calm or nearly so. Since one of the main advantages of ATB’s is that they can and do routinely sail in conditions that would leave a conventional tug weather-bound, the likelihood of it being calm enough is low. Better get Chafe-Pro or Web-Tec now!

And please keep in mind that, while this post is aimed primarily at ATB operations, these regulations include all tank barges operating on the territorial sea (from the baseline out to 12 NM) and in certain inland waters: the Great Lakes, Long Island Sound, the Strait of Juan De Fuca, and part of Puget Sound (Admiralty Inlet north of Marrowstone Point). Inexplicably missing, for whatever reason, are the bays Chesapeake and Delaware, whose geography, weather and heavy tank barge traffic present many of the very same risks as those previously designated inland waters listed above.

Reader opinions, ideas, recommendations, observations, criticisms and so on are always welcome. In particular, photos of the various systems in use presently or in the past are especially valuable for spreading potentially better ways of preparing for this emergency and in helping to eliminate the worst-practices. The goal is to improve upon the industry’s best-practices and promote them, not to stagnate until the next spill forces potentially abrupt changes on us.

To that end, medium-resolution jpeg photo files are what we need to illustrate with. E-mail your photos with captions or a detailed story to and we’ll be happy to post them.


  1. And what happens if something goes wrong with the barge in tow and want to ditch it for some reason. Ive always been told never put an eye on a bit encase you had to get rid of the tow for some reason. I saw someone put the eye on and we were in an emergency and couldnt get rid of the line because it wasnt tied, someone put the eye on the bit.

  2. I work on a conventional wire boat and todays personal electronic addicted crews can’t remember what to do from day to day. So your looking at a catastrophic event on an ATB where the crew is more like custodians.

  3. That’s definitely a legitimate concern and deserves full consideration. But the crew still has to be prepared to cut that line quickly in the event of an emergency regardless of whether the eye is on the H-bitt or the line is made fast with turns. For that you need a knife that is large and sharp enough, and has the right kind of edge to do the job. Suppose the turns are taken off and the line is released, only to snag on some other fitting or protrusion on deck as it tears over the side? You need a wicked shahp knife on your person and ready to be deployed.

  4. While that may be true to a certain extent an avoidable catastrophe is still a catastrophe. If a vessel may have to tow an oil barge then the vessel must be rigged to realistically do it and the crew must be trained and able to do it. Please note that I specifically mentioned that the regulations apply to the towing of all tank barges on the affected waters, whether they are moved as part of an ATB unit or towed conventionally. I do agree that skills seem to be steadily slipping across the board and that there is a growing problem with <strong>ADD. Maybe creating a whole generation of kids pumped full of Ritalin wasn’t such a great idea.

  5. Great article

  6. The issue is first you have to know what to do and how to handle the boat when it gets loose in the notch and not trip the boat or get the line in the wheel. The line should be made off in the proper hawser fashion on the bitt and not dead-ended. If the wheelhouse personnel have never handled a hawser before shortening up will be an interesting evolution to say the least. With some companies only having personnel inexperienced in towing on ATB’s, or ship personnel with no tug-handling experience at all, it won’t be long before there is a tragic situation on one of these ATB’s.

  7. Very good article. The one company that does it right as ATB’s go is Bouchard (surprise): the tugs are still kept as conventional tow boats. Towing machines are on all their boats and lower wheel houses are standard. And best of all the tankermen live on the barge, not the tug! This should all be mandatory.

  8. I agree completely that the lack of knowledge and ability will result in a tragedy at some point, but of course no one can predict when or where. I also fully acknowledge that there is a contradiction in my simultaneous support for the ATB-only endorsement on the MoTV license, which is simply a practical necessity for manning and advancement problems that are undeniable (caused by the classification of all ATB’s as towing vessels when most really aren’t), and my contention that not having conventional towing skills on those same ATB’s is a safety problem that is being ignored and an accident waiting to happen. The trouble is with the technology itself: it’s led us into a skills/experience trap that I see no easy way out of. Any company operating ATB’s would need a “farm system” of conventional tugs to rotate people on and off of regularly to get conventional towing skills on in the first place. Then the ATB crews would all need to periodically go back on those conventional tugs to refresh their normally unused skills. It’s not a one-time deal: if the skills aren’t used regularly they’ll be lost. That is why I pointed out the glaring mistake of eliminating the original requirement for a live drill and demonstrating proof of effectiveness for the emergency-barge-control equipment and procedures for tank barges.

  9. I fully agree that Bouchard has this concept down better than anyone else, and I’ve written about it numerous times and illustrated it in photos. Their ATB’s are really just conventional tugs that happen to have pins. Nevertheless, if no one bothers to periodically tow conventionally just to keep the skill levels up and train new people who’ve never done it before, you still wind up with the same problem as a regular ATB: pin-boat crews that would be incompetent to handle a situation requiring a conventional tow, whether in an emergency or not.

  10. I agree totally with what you are saying, but at Bouchard their boats will move other barges in their fleet. And at times they have to put out push wires, make up alongside, and put one on the string. All because the pins do not match up, so at least their guys do get old-school experience. All the other companies put all their eggs in one basket, by marrying up pin boats. I for one hated ATB’s, and the company where I worked for years had a lot of pin boats and I would fill in on one once in awhile. As a barge Captain it drove me crazy that I was living on the tug, and I was constantly worried about things on the barge. Black oil barges have boilers that are on fire to keep the product hot. What if something goes wrong and it burns up a thermo line and the alarms malfunctioned?! Believe me it happens and it can turn ugly real fast, but here I am living on the tug. I would return to my barge and say in relief “Put me on the string” thank you. I am now glad that I had to retire, way too many changes out there for me.

  11. Thanks for a different perspective from the other end of the hawser! It also brings up another area of concern for a future post: all hands, including the crew of a manned tank barge, must be ready for responding to a breakaway barge. It isn’t just the tug’s crew that needs to be trained, able and ready. To successfully recover the barge will require that the tankermen be prepared too. Then there’s the matter of the emergency towing equipment itself. Is it adequate in the first place? Is it rigged properly? If it is, is it also in good repair and able to withstand potentially punishing use while you’re hooking up the tow, or is it wasted from exposure to the elements and just a weak point waiting to fail when you need it most?

    When the barge North Cape grounded after the tug Scandia caught fire in Block Island Sound, it was discovered that the anchor windlass had been removed for repairs and then never returned. With no way to lift the anchor there was no way to release the anchor. This was an idiotic set-up: pelican hooks had/have been around for ages and need no power or tools to release an anchor quickly. But I’ve never once seen one on a barge, then or now. Many years have passed since that “accident” but nothing of substance has changed regarding anchoring equipment standards. How the hell ABS approves these anchor systems is beyond comprehension. Why the Coast Guard accepts it is another good question.

  12. Don’t forget to check and/or change the emergency “hawser”. I think we have all seen some dried up hawsers/emergency lines that havent been changed or inspected somewhere down the line. I’ve seen some that shred just by kicking them. Kinda negates the whole operation when it is hooked up and on the first pull…………………….pop. Now you have no pins and no towline.

  13. That is a very good point. Sometimes the attitude of “It doesn’t matter because we’ll never use it anyway” starts to take over. While it’s true that the odds of any one barge ever having to deploy it is quite low, the odds matter little once you’re luck runs out and it happens to you. A weather-beaten, sun-fried, falling-apart hawser is worse than useless. Covering them with a lashed-down tarp to protect them from the UV rays will make them last longer.

  14. There is one piece of emergency equipment that should be mandatory on all Tugs and barges is a line gun. In my 32 years running on tugs and barges I have rarely seen one and there was situations that it would have come in handy, just ask the guys that were on the tug Heidi Moran if their barge would have gone on the beach after she broke loose from the Northport platform when a Noreaster came out of nowhere back in the mid 90s.

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