Posted by: towmasters | June 9, 2011

Open-Door Policy: It’s Not Always Good

Some managers have an “open-door” office policy when it comes to fielding comments, complaints or suggestions from the workers. This can be viewed as a sign of a healthy workplace environment: nobody has all the answers and problem-solving should be a collaborative process.

But an open-door policy on a tugboat, when taken literally, isn’t a good idea.

Working backwards through this series of photos, a closer look at this small tug with a short stern tow…

…reveals that all of the doors on the main deck are wide open. That’s broad-daylight-on-water showing through the engine room doors. If anything went wrong with the engines or steering with that barge so close astern they’d have little or no time to avoid being tripped, if it didn’t just run them over instead. Even without a failure on the tug itself something else could go wrong: maybe that sailboat all of a sudden turns in front of their bow. You never know what might happen so the best defense of all is to keep the doors closed and tightly dogged, particularly when towing close astern. Watertight doors also require maintenance (grease the dogs), proper alignment (use shims to adjust), a good seal (clean, pliable gaskets) and periodic testing (chalk around the knife edge) if they are to be fully effective. But regardless, a closed door with an imperfect seal is still way better than a door that seals perfectly but is left pinned open all the time.

These photos weren’t posted to embarrass anyone or to throw them under the bus, and I debated whether or not I should even use them at all. But ultimately the safety imperative is the most important consideration here, or at least it should be. I have lots more where these came from because the practice is far more common than it should be. The Coast Guard, for its part, repeatedly warns about the dangers of this practice via their Safety Alerts, but still it goes on. Some of it, no doubt, comes from mariners who just don’t care. But some of it comes from the fact that it can get so damned hot in the engine room when the weather starts to warm up that it’s simply intolerable to humans except for very short periods of time. Conditions like that are certainly not conducive to getting the crew to make diligent and thorough rounds of the machinery spaces, let alone perform regular maintenance on a vessel that runs most of the time and whose engine room seldom cools down. In this case the photos were taken on a nice spring day in New York Harbor, with an air temperature in the upper 60’s and the water still in the 50’s. So I doubt very much that the engine room would have been so hot that this was absolutely necessary. But then again, I don’t work on that boat so I don’t know for sure.

What I do know is this: tugs have very little reserve buoyancy and so cannot afford to take a chance on losing any of it. Down-flooding of the engine room, which is what can and does happen when doors are left open, is virtually guaranteed to sink you, and fast. But humans have physiological limits too, and if people are pushed too far out of their comfort zone they simply will cease to perform. Failing to account and adequately allow for human requirements is a long-term systemic problem in the marine industry and any tug that must have the main deck doors open in hot weather is, by definition, both unsafe and unseaworthy. Regardless of whether the leading cause industry-wide is shortcomings with tug design and engine room ventilation systems, the attitudes of mariners manning the boats or, most likely, a combination of both, the problem still persists. More work needs to be done in educating mariners about the dangers as well as ensuring that engine rooms aren’t as hot as the surface of Mercury, thereby guaranteeing that this practice will necessarily continue as a heat-stroke avoidance tactic. If a requirement for adequate ventilation, including clear performance standards, is not included in the first draft of the upcoming new towing vessel inspection regulations then it was a major oversight that will need to be corrected in the first round of comments and revisions.

For more on this subject check out Death On The River Clyde, More Thoughts On The River Clyde Tragedy…, Do You Live In A Barn?, and Getting Tripped: Roll The Video…

Posted by: towmasters | June 6, 2011

Photos Of The Week – 6/6/11

One ship…

…two tugs.

The self-discharging bulker Balder, with a brace of McAllister tugs on either side of the bow, moves up the Bay and turns onto the Deepwater Range for the East River.

Posted by: towmasters | June 2, 2011

Tugboat How-To: Towing Alongside 101

Towing alongside is considered to be a bread-and-butter skill for anyone operating a towing vessel. To the novice deckhand or bargeman, or to an academy-graduate greenhorn, much of the process and the reasons for doing things in certain ways may seem mysterious. This post is intended to illuminate some of these principles and practices, as well as to serve as a starting point for others to contribute their ideas and opinions.

Here is an example in profile of the classic stern-first or “heads & tails” configuration (tug’s bow head-first with the barge’s stern tail-first when moving ahead, thus becoming the “working bow”) for towing alongside, which is usually the preferred method whenever possible, as demonstrated by the tug Mary Turecamo and the barge Portland in the Upper Bay’s Bay Ridge Anchorage…


…a close-up for more detail: 2-part head line, a strap (1-part), and a 2-part stern line. The strap is what transmits the vast majority of the forward pulling force of the tug to the barge, while the head and stern lines transmit the turning/twisting/pivoting forces that allow the barge to be steered. The head line also handles most of the backing forces.

These images of the Marie J. Turecamo and the barge Connecticut, with the same kind of make-up, shows all three lines…

…doing their respective jobs…

…as they slide by, headed for the Con Hook Range and the Kills.

Why is the heads & tails make-up the preferred way to do it?

Because most tank barges (as well as many other types) have skegs, or vertical stabilizers, at the stern…

…which allow for much better and more predictable handling characteristics when they are cutting through the water at the lead end of the tow. This greatly enhances directional control (the barge “tracks” better) and helps minimize the “slide” or crabbing-effect, wherein you and your tow will travel sideways a certain amount when moving forward unless you can counteract it with the rudder, sometimes a great deal of rudder. Some barges, literally, want to move you a barge-width or more to the side for every barge-length you advance and it will frighten the daylights out of you the first time you experience it. It’s like trying to walk in a straight line when one of your legs is a foot shorter than the other. In some cases it can be so extreme that you use up virtually all of your rudder, swung away from the barge-side, just trying to go straight and have to resort to twin-screwing your way through turns. A trick that will often help, when towing anything alongside, is to use only your “inboard” engine (the side where the barge is made up.) in situations where you need to temporarily minimize your slide. With the propulsion axis more closely centered on the overall width of the tow (tug and barge/vessel combined) the tendency to slide will be reduced, sometimes dramatically. This was a technique I used frequently in the days when I used to jockey barges in and out of Erie Basin, a place that allows scant room for error.

Here’s another view…

…which clearly shows the hydrodynamic forces at work.

Polyester (Dacron in North America, Terylene in most of the British Commonwealth) is the long-time standard for tug deck lines and, amongst the various desirable characteristics it possesses, it has just the right amount of stretch for towing alongside. Nylon is too stretchy (8-15% @ 30% of breaking strength), but that makes it highly suitable for use as a towing hawser. Spectra has very little stretch or elongation (just 3%) making it great for push gear, but this same characteristic means its utility for alongside towing is poor unless you only use it in slick-calm conditions and where the wakes of other vessels are never a factor. Polyester has just enough stretch (around 5-8%) to allow the lines to absorb enough of the forces that are exerted by the independent movements of the hulls of the tug and barge, while not being so stretchy that you feel like a yo-yo while trying to handle the barge. These powerful forces, if not absorbed at least partially by the lines, are transmitted directly to and absorbed by the metal of the respective hulls in and around the attachment points, which will gradually be weakened by it. It is for this reason that Spectra is unsuitable. One day you may find out the hard way that the cleats, bitts and staples, on either the tug or the barge, were unable to accept this punishment indefinitely when a catastrophic failure occurs and they are abruptly bent over, snapped off or torn loose altogether without warning. This phenomenon has happened (I have seen it) and probably won’t happen at a convenient time and location. Unless you always tow alongside where it is perpetually calm, forget about using Spectra alongside until the day Honeywell or someone else invents a variety that has more stretch to it. ‘Nuff said.

Personally, in most situations, I usually prefer to make just a little extra effort and use a 3-part head line like this make-up on the Zachery Reinauer

…or this one on the Potomac

…as it provides greater insurance against breakage by spreading the strain of any sudden shock loads (S.I. Ferry wakes, choppy waves, etc.) over a longer linear length of line. The downside is that it requires deck skills that are no longer common, as well as good coordination between the bargemen and the deckhands, to put up a 3-part head line on-the-fly: like when you’re rounding up on a barge and picking it up alongside, particularly when it’s very windy. In those cases it is often advantageous to make up to the barge in a more forward position…

…with the headline placed at the barge’s midships area, so that the still-connected tow wire serves as your stern line, as demonstrated by the Stephen Scott. By eliminating the need to put up a stern line you gain full control over the barge more quickly. You can sometimes use this method when making up further aft too, but it depends on the length of the barge’s pennant: you want to avoid having the socket of your tow wire (or the towing shackle) bent over, or too close to, the tug’s rail.

Below is a more detailed look at a 3-part head line make-up. When the individual parts can be kept well separated from one another, as they are here, you eliminate chafing by friction between the parts where they make contact, a desirable outcome whenever possible. Not all main bitt configurations will allow for this much of a spread, however.

Is a 3-part make-up necessary? No. It all depends on your level of tolerance for risk. When doing short local shifts at the same or an adjacent dock, or just sliding them down a face, it may be overkill. And lots of people routinely use just a 2-part line where I would use 3, and it usually works fine as long as the line is big enough and is in good repair. But breaking a head line is the most difficult line failure to deal with handling-wise, so if you want to give yourself the best chance of avoiding that potential nightmare then a 3-parter is definitely the way to go. Why take a chance? Certainly not because a deck hand or tankerman thinks it’s “too hard” and starts whining about all the “extra” work. My answer goes like this: “If you think this is a lot of work now, just wait until you see how much ‘extra’ work you’ll have to do later if and when this line breaks.” Been there, done that. It’s asses-and-elbows in a chaotic situation, and I don’t need to experience it ever again just for old time’s sake or to prove the point to a non-believer.

Ideally, you don’t just try to throw up a 2 or 3-part head line in a hurry from a line coiled (or left in a tangled heap) on deck: it needs to be set up in advance to enable a quick, snag-free deployment. For deck hands and tankermen the easy way to remember the sequence is that for a 2-part line the eye stays on the tug, and for a 3-part the eye goes to the barge. A frequent mistake made by deckhands is not leaving enough slack in both parts of the 2-part component of a headline (whether 2 or 3-part) to easily reach the fitting it will go around on the deck of the barge, which inevitably results in an unnecessary delay in getting made up and cursing from the bargeman having to deal with it. Better to be too long than too short in this situation.

How much pinch should you use? Pinch is the angular difference between the longitudinal axes (center lines) of the tug and barge once you are made up. Seldom would you ever find the optimal alongside towing make-up to leave you dead flat against the barge. Nevertheless, it can vary widely and there is no one correct answer: here you see a great deal of it…

…but a good starting point is to try ending up with the tug’s bow aligned with the near-side corner of the barge and adjust from there as you experiment to figure out how the barge handles best. Reinauer’s Putnam and Richmond were an old pair of notoriously poor-handling, shoebox-square-sterned, 300 x 60-foot inland tank barges that were absolute beasts alongside (bow-first or stern-first, it made no difference) unless you used a great deal of pinch. Typically, I’d make up with the tug’s bow pointed at the middle of the barge’s stern and, if it was very windy, nearly at the opposite-side corner. It was the only way to keep them from getting away from you.

In general, it is better to avoid towing barges, particularly large barges (relative to the size of the tug) alongside “head to head” (bow-first) if possible. Why? Because without the skegs at the working bow to provide “bite” into the water they tend to slide a lot more than they otherwise would, and a badly sliding barge is a hazard to you and everyone else around you. But not all barges behave badly when taken bow-first and, in any case, sometimes circumstances require it. Maybe the barge has to go into a slip berth bow-in and there’s no room, or not enough water, to back in with the tug. Or maybe you’re going alongside a ship to bunker it and you’ve got no assist tug to help you (With a small bunker barge, proper fendering, and the right amount of pinch you shouldn’t need one most of the time anyway). But if you’ve got a bad “slider” on your hands a lot of pinch will almost certainly be needed to keep it under control, and you might also want an escort tug along for the ride if you’re in a busy traffic area in confined waters.

Check out this sequence featuring Dann Marine’s tug Atlantic Coast

…moving one of Great Lakes’ dredge-spoil hopper scows eastbound through the KVK.

You may have noticed that the longitudinal axes of the tug and barge are, necessarily, not even close to parallel. This angle, plus the inevitable crabbing, makes the tow significantly wider than just the sum of the vessel’s respective beams. You will therefore need considerably more room to navigate within, so plan and behave accordingly. Nobody likes a channel hog with a wild barge showing up unannounced.

The goal is to get from Point A to Point B with your barge without crashing into anyone, running them out of the channel, damaging anything, or otherwise making your fellow mariner’s lives (or your own) more difficult than they already are.

In this case the Atlantic Coast‘s make-up affording them good control over the scow, so the extra width wasn’t a problem to the oncoming traffic.

And they all lived happily ever after…

Posted by: towmasters | May 30, 2011

Photo Of The Week – 5/30/11

Ships and tugs at work in Tony Soprano country…


Posted by: towmasters | May 23, 2011

Photo Of The Week – 5/23/11

Life springs anew on the ruins of Shooters Island

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.

Posted by: towmasters | May 16, 2011

Photo Of The Week – 5/16/11

In a world of steady business consolidation it’s really nice to see that the small, independent operator still exists…seen here on Long Island Sound motoring past the Gold Coast. While the towing industry as a whole has been sorely in need of vessel inspections for many decades, now that we’re actually getting close to seeing them implemented (maybe) the Coast Guard needs to be very careful not to inadvertantly run the small operators out of business with new rules that are inappropriate and overly-burdensome for the work they do while still meeting the improved-safety mandate from Congress. That means it can’t be a one-size-fits-all approach and it won’t be easy, so the Coast Guard will need to cast a broad net for opinions and advice on how to make it all work. I guess we’ll find out whether that will happen or not…

Posted by: towmasters | May 14, 2011

They’re Back!!!

Yes, it’s that time of year again! With Memorial Day weekend rapidly approaching the weather is warming up and the recreational boaters are washing out their beer coolers and carefully checking over their stereo systems, getting ready for the summer ritual of high-speed thrills and spills on a waterway near you. With gasoline holding steady at well over $4.00 a gallon at the pump in the New York area it remains to be seen how much gratuitous squandering of fuel we’ll see locally this year, but there’s bound to be at least some who can still afford to open up the throttles…

…and let’er rip. This one’s blowing away the cars on Brooklyn’s Belt Parkway, while another crew of seasoned navigators…

…tears through the anchorage in Gravesend Bay. I guess they must have been running late trying to get to their boating safety classes!

Many avid fishers crowd close to deep-draft traffic, including conventional tugs towing barges astern, transiting the major shipping channels…

…like Ambrose, and often utterly fail to pay attention to where they drift and the danger they put themselves and others in. People get especially excited, and distracted, when they have a fish on. So it’s wise to always expect the worst from them. They are simply ignorant of the risks or don’t think it can happen to them, but it can and does. But serious attention gets paid only after someone gets killed. The Coast Guard has made efforts to cut down on the problem since 2005, calling it Operation Clear Channel, but it’s hard to say how effective it’s been. In any case, the Coastie’s are stretched thin with security duties taking precedence, so don’t expect any miracles.

Even in the parts of the harbor that appear to be strictly commercial shipping boulevards…

…you can expect to see the occasional yacht in close quarters. In fact, there are a few marinas hidden amongst the refineries and tank farms…

…like Port Johnson in Bayonne, NJ which is accessed by going underneath an IMTT pipeline.

Powerboats are not the only potential non-professional collision risk we face. Below, the Stephen-Scott maneuvers…

…through a gaggle of sail boats in New York Harbor’s Upper Bay. They may tack abruptly and without warning directly into your path, then stare in horror at you as you bear down on them.

Or you might even find yourself amongst serious racing teams…

…from Ireland and California to…

…Canada and China…

…to England, all right in the middle of New York Harbor.

Meanwhile, heading to sea may offer no relief at all. When headed “down” or “up the beach,” local tugboater slang for traversing the Atlantic Ocean along the New Jersey shore between New York Harbor and Delaware or Chesapeake Bays,…

…you will still find the same types of close-quarters situations you thought you had left behind back in the harbor. These are often the worst kind, because your options are very limited maneuvering-wise when you’re towing astern and communications with the other vessel or vessels may be non-existent. Why people insist on getting unnecessarily close to one another like this when in wide-open waters I’ll never understand.

And don’t forget that human-propelled vessels…

…may appear where and when you least expect them to, even in thoroughly industrial waterways. Who the hell goes paddling in the Gowanus Canal? Obviously, some people do. Probably the same ones who lurk around the Erie Basin Cut in their kayaks, which is about as dangerous a place to do that as you can find. The chances of them understanding their surroundings in a meaningful way that might prevent easily-avoided tragedies is not terribly high, so beware.

Finally, always remember exactly who you’re dealing with. Not every pleasure boater is clueless, but many are. Just listen in on this couple who were not prepared…

Posted by: towmasters | May 9, 2011

Photo Of The Week – 5/9/11

Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?

The shadow knows!

Well, okay. It’s just a tug boat…

Posted by: towmasters | May 3, 2011

Behold: The Can-Opener!

Does this look like any way to run an airline to you?

I didn’t think so.

I call this the “can-opener” style of caisson pad. It doesn’t look good for resting a barges hull against, and you certainly wouldn’t want to hit it from the side while sliding into the berth. It can be found on the second caisson or cell in at an active and busy petroleum dock/pier complex in New York Harbor that features a one-way-in, one-way-out approach, so it is unavoidable. On a double-hulled barge this at least a holed hull if you hit it, and a holed hull plus a spill if you hit it hard enough. On one of the elderly remaining single-hulled barges it is almost certainly a hole plus a spill at just about any speed. The first caisson on the approach is identical to this one, except there is no pad or stanchions, and no fendering of any kind on the caisson. That’s bad, but under the circumstances it’s better than this one. At least you’d hit something relatively blunt and you might avoid the spill.

Sometimes things don’t go as planned. The steering can go out, you can lose one or both engines, suck a line or old tire into a wheel, the assist tug could become disabled, etc. Or you could just be human and not have a great day at the wheel. Variables happen. But this isn’t an unknowable variable that couldn’t be anticipated. This is bad design and lack of upkeep. You would think that this must be unacceptable to someone: the Coast Guard, ABS, oil company safety vetters, the insurance underwriters, someone! And while this might be one of the more extreme examples it surely isn’t the only one, and there are many others that are not as bad but still a hazard. Shouldn’t all terminals have to meet decent minimum standards too? This is not good risk management.

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