COLUMN | Time to put an end to Third World tug practices [Tug Times]

Cape Hatteras lighthouse

A whole series of disastrous events caught my eye recently, because they all involved tugs and all took place in the same country. And while we know you cannot believe everything you read in the newspapers, I have found nothing to indicate the stories are not true.

First was news that local authorities were taking enforcement action against a domestic owner that had not complied with their instructions regarding safety and manning on two tugs anchored near a port for months and whose crews had not been paid since the beginning of the year.

The crews were, apparently, blameless, and the authorities praised them because they, “understand their responsibility…and are continuing to diligently stand their watch and weather the situation to the best of their abilities.” Yet in typical Third World fashion, good crews appear to have been abandoned and left unpaid.

The next case involved a tug that was accused of having an ineffective maintenance programme after, “excessive and undetected wear of the port clutch,” compromised manoeuvrability and led to collision with another tug. Damage to the barges being towed by both vessels was extensive and expensive.

Ten days later, the same tug caused her barges to hit a stationary barge, and two weeks after that she suffered a crankcase explosion and engine room fire. She was subsequently scrapped, presumably before she could do any more damage, and I suppose we should be grateful that she is not still operating somewhere in the Third World.

At about the same time, there were reports of a tug that had been abandoned by its owner and lay rotting off a local port for several years. Seemingly unable to hold the owner to account, the local authorities are most likely going to clean her and sink her before she has a chance to sink of her own accord. After all, she was built in 1941, which makes her quite old, even by the standards of the Third World.

Next was the story of a tug that was tied up alongside when a storm hit the area. The crew had gone ashore, and she was blown off her moorings and swamped by waves that caused her to sink.

“The company’s lack of an effective hull maintenance and repair programme”

This case made me particularly angry because we all know how to secure a tug before leaving her unattended. If watertight doors and openings are closed, and mooring ropes doubled up, there is little chance a tug will be blown off the berth, and even less chance that she will sink. They must do things differently in the Third World, but forgive me for thinking that good seamanship and common sense ought to be universal.

Perhaps the worst part of this story is that the tug has been lifted and is undergoing repairs so she will be blighting the world’s waterways again in the future. I read a similar report where a tug broke her moorings, drifted onto the rocks, was damaged and then foundered, which might be a different account of the same incident, but whatever the cause of the sinking it appears it could have been prevented with a few decent mooring ropes.

Following that, I spotted an accident investigation report about a tug that lost control of itself and its barge during a berthing manoeuvre and promptly whacked a bridge. Apparently, the mechanical linkage to one of the clutches fell off, so when the captain put both engines astern only one of them complied whilst the other continued to chunder ahead.

The more revs he applied, the more the tug went the wrong way, which led to the collision with the bridge. No doubt the lawyers are already talking about an allision, but I am sure regular readers remember that an allision refers only to a ship hitting another, stationary, ship. So this was a collision!

Finally, my favourite, a tug that was sailing along minding her own business when she began flooding and rapidly sank in the middle of a river. She was relatively new by Third World standards, having first sailed in 1968 – a mere 12 months before my own career took to the water – so I would not say she was old.

Apparently, water ingress had been a bit of a problem, so there were electric pumps rigged in various void spaces – three of which had to be pumped out daily.

The crewmembes were aware of the leaks, and had reported them, but an inspection had not been able to locate them so the tug continued in service.

After she was lifted from the riverbed investigators found numerous cracks in the hull, through at least one of which daylight could be seen. It appears the cracks were mostly above the normal waterline so when the tug was pushing, her barges prevented any bow wave. Sadly, once she proceeded along the river without barges the bow wave built up, flooded the forward compartments via the pre-existing cracks, and down she went. Investigators concluded the probable cause was the company’s lack of an effective hull maintenance and repair programme. You think?

“We all need to consider our own exposure to such disasters”

Of course, officials can go too far in the other direction and I was disappointed to learn that a Port State Control inspector in Greece recently spotted a cargo ship where the load line was a few centimetres under water, and had the master arrested.

It would have been kinder to give the poor chap a chance to offload some of the marble he was loading, but rules are rules and the master had broken them, so technically he was as guilty as sin. On balance, I suppose I prefer the Greek approach to the Third World way of doing things.

Running ships in the lackadaisical manner described in the cases above is often just one sign that all is not being done properly. For example, I found another report from the same country about a lighthouse that is rather important for shipping, yet local residents record it being unlit recently.

Even worse, it also failed to shine in August last year, and was out for roughly one month in 2018 after being damaged by storms. Note to the responsible authority: it is generally quite a good idea if lighthouses are designed to withstand storms.

And if you have not already worked it out, the lighthouse is Cape Hatteras, the country is the USA, and with any luck the Subchapter M requirements will soon make such disasters a thing of the past.

It is possible to stop these things happening. Cape Hatteras lighthouse has already been moved further inland once, and perhaps it is time for another move. The structure itself is rather fine, and apparently one of the tallest brick-built towers in the world, so it would be a pity to lose it.

Some of the tugs mentioned above were not so fine and very few people would miss them if they were replaced which, I hope, will soon happen. But it will be interesting to see how long it takes for Subchapter M to have an impact.

The rules have been in place for less than two years, and some of the reports probably referred to accidents which happened before their introduction, but in my experience it takes much longer than that for companies to develop a genuine safety culture.

At least the Americans have taken action, and we can see from the reports I mentioned that such action was probably overdue, but the purpose here is not to mock so much as to suggest we all need to consider our own exposure to such disasters and ensure there are no Third World practices in our own operations. Then we can all sleep better at night.

Alan Loynd

Alan Loynd is a master mariner with extensive seagoing and shore experience, especially in the areas of salvage and towage. He is the former General Manager of the renowned Hong Kong Salvage and Towage company. He now runs his own marine consultancy and was chairman of the International Tugmasters Association.