A couple of articles caught my eye recently, although they were quite different in their opinions and conclusions. First was a piece by the esteemed Michael Grey, summing up his impressions of 2018, which he described as a year, "not to be remembered with any great affection".
He described, as only he can, a year dominated by confusion over Brexit, trade wars and sanctions, and an industry facing a "perfect storm" of environmental legislation. This, of course, is an assessment of the entire shipping industry and is not aimed specifically at our little corner of the market, although Mr. Grey did note that there have been, "exciting developments in sustainable designs for small craft operating close to their terminals."
The second article was much more tug-specific. Written by Martyn Wingrove, it claimed that 2018 was, "the biggest year in tug innovation for a generation". Among the innovations discussed were Carrousel RAVE tugs, new designs which enhance operations in small ports and tight spaces, Damen’s first RSD tug, new hybrid propulsion and dual-fuel technologies, autonomous tugs, and new mergers and partnerships. This is an impressive list, but is it the most impressive list for a generation?
My problem is I have trouble singling out individual years any more. At my age, they all meld into one another and the lines become blurred.
I suppose the period I remember as the most innovative of my life concerned fashion, not tugs. I was an adolescent male with raging hormones when the miniskirt was invented and women, bless them, started burning their bras. Surely there was never a better time to be alive, although I could not put a specific date on the events save that they happened in the late 1960s – and they may have taken a few years to reach my co-educational rural school from their birthplaces in California and Swinging London.
And so it is with innovation in the towage industry. I cannot praise (or blame) a specific year, and prefer to see events as part of a cycle which has now spanned a generation. It probably started around the time that Ken Ross stood up at an international tug conference and told us that, before long, we would need to build a new kind of tug capable of escorting large tankers into and out of ports.
Prior to that, things had been fairly settled and conferences tended to be dominated by debates about the relative merits of Voith versus Z-drive tugs. But the period after Ken’s speech saw an explosion of new ideas, with things like ship docking modules transforming the harbour towage scene and early escort tugs making their appearance. The dramatic increase in the size of ocean-going vessels also saw a corresponding increase in the power of the tugs which serviced them – something which continues to this day.
It seems to me that innovation has been fairly sustained ever since, and part of a process. After all, the Carrousel RAVE tug did not appear out of nowhere in 2018, but had been developed over a sustained period. I remember a radio-controlled model which was demonstrated at a tug conference more than a decade ago, when delegates were invited to try to capsize the model using the attached towline. The designers made their point early in the process by demonstrating that the model would not capsize.
Many other innovations have been introduced in the last few decades, and one of the delights of working in our industry has been witnessing all the changes. But will it continue?
"Perhaps it is time for the industry to focus less on innovation and more on bringing proper safety systems and procedures to those who need them"
Here I am going to stick my neck out and suggest that we are at the pinnacle of innovation, and not so much will change in the next generation. We already have designs with propulsion units in every corner of the hull, so it is hard to imagine very many new configurations in the future, and it is the same with hull forms. There will certainly be advances in towing lines and propulsion systems, and no doubt some more horrible ideas for autonomous tugs, but I suggest they will not be as revolutionary as the changes which we have already witnessed.
It seems likely we will spend more time worrying about how to get a salvage team (or even a towline) onto a vessel when there is no crew to receive them, and I doubt that drones will feature as prominently as some people believe. We will continue to wrestle with existing problems, and no doubt the incredibly clever people in our sector will eventually solve them, but I have no idea how.
All of us can take pride in what the industry has achieved, and it has been a pleasure to witness so much innovation and ingenuity, but at the same time I am concerned by the gulf which has been created between the countries where modern ideas and methods have been embraced, and those (normally poorer) countries where towage is still very basic.
Perhaps it was ever thus, but it is very noticeable today, particularly in Asia. Here there are ports with modern tugs embracing many of the innovations discussed above while, just a few miles away, there are ports operating very basic single screw tugs in a very slapdash manner.
I did a recent search of tug photographs on the internet, and there are far too many conventional tugs sailing around with all the maindeck doors latched open. Too often, their crews appear on deck without a single item of protective equipment, and their "uniform" appears to consist of the slacks, open-necked shirt and sandals they were wearing when they reported for duty. Such tugs are often nicely painted, but I suspect the crews have been painting over rust.
The chances are that these local tugs fall outside IMO regulations, and local rules are either lacking or not enforced. Perhaps it is time for the industry to focus less on innovation and more on bringing proper safety systems and procedures to those who need them. The problem, of course, is who will do it? IMO does not have jurisdiction, and some governments seem to lack the will. That only leaves the industry itself.
Perhaps bodies like the European Tugowners Association could devote some resources to helping their colleagues in less favoured nations. Perhaps 2019 could be be the year when the entire industry sets about tackling the widening gap in equipment, skills and knowledge which blights the towage sector. With the tremendous wealth of experience available, it should not be beyond us.
You may not agree, but that is my point of view.