COLUMN | The “angry fruit salad” may hamper the development of future tugs [Tug Times]

Photo: HSS Shipbuilding, Malaysia

Anyone who has been to sea on a tug in bad weather, particularly in the bad old days when Inmarsat C was being introduced, will be familiar with the problem on alarms going off every few seconds. A decent roll would set off the bilge high-level alarms and various other technical warnings, whilst a distress message would be repeated ad infinitum with an alarm at every re-transmission. Things are better now, but every watchkeeper has probably experienced the same urge to rip the alarm panels out and throw them over the side.

Sadly, the complaints of mariners were largely ignored, but the topic has resurfaced thanks to a study carried out by the Shipowners Club with support from the University of London, ISWAN and InterManager. Their research found that frequent alarms, particularly false alarms, can induce “alarm fatigue” and hinder proper watchkeeping. Problems include too many similar-sounding alarms which make it difficult to identify the ones which are serious.

A survey of serving watchkeepers revealed that 89 per cent of respondents thought false alarms were a problem, while 24 per cent claimed they seldom or never turned on the bridge navigational watch alarm system due to the high number of false alarms.

Capt. Kuba Szymanski of InterManager commented that, “at present, as an industry, we are creating an environment for failure and then we are surprised when our seafarers fail! We can and must break this vicious circle.” He is quite right, although it is rather disappointing that everyone has ignored the problem while it was only being raised by seafarers, and did not take it seriously until larger industry bodies became involved.

One person who realised that alarms can be hazardous to health was the pioneering ergonomist Jo Huddleston, who coined the phrase “the angry fruit salad” to describe alarm panels which are flashing and sounding continuously. Anyone who has been on the bridge of a tug in bad weather will know exactly why that is such an apt description.

We obviously need a major revolution in the way alarms are designed and presented in the wheelhouse, especially since we are on the cusp of major changes in the design and operation of tugs in the near future. These changes are described most thoughtfully in a recent paper by four giants of the industry – Henk Hensen, Markus van der Laan, Johan de Jong and Daan Merkelbach – in their paper on, The Road Towards Autonomous Ship Handling with Tugs, which considers the potential changes to tug operations between now and 2050.

The authors first point out that changes may not be as rapid as some people think, and cite the advent of steam – when sailing vessels continued to dominate our seas for 100 years after the development of the first steam-powered vessel. They then turn their attention to the likely changes to seagoing vessels, world trade patterns, ports and transhipment areas, in an effort to predict likely changes to tugs. They conclude there will not be a uniform transition to autonomous technologies, which will arrive in different phases.

“There is barely a flight where the humans in the cockpit do not have to overrule the automation and take back control for one reason or another”

Tug designs, they say, will have to closely follow changes to ships and ports, but ships may also have to conform to the capabilities of the available tugs. Autonomous vessels will have to be designed so that tugs can easily connect when they break down or go haywire, for example. Tugs, on the other hand, will still have to perform routine duties such as barge towing or assisting vessels through locks, as well as emergencies, so designers will face numerous challenges to make them fit for all their intended uses.

Turning to the development of autonomous tugs, the authors point out the difficulties of coping with interaction and bow tug operations, particularly as ships get larger and faster, not to mention the problems associated with connecting towing lines. They conclude that designers will need a much better understanding of all the forces involved for autonomous tugs to become a reality. They also quote Pieter Elbers of KLM, who believes, “machines will do everything, and only when it is becoming too complex will human beings take over,” which is what happens on aircraft, apparently. One aviation expert is quoted as saying there is barely a flight where the humans in the cockpit do not have to overrule the automation and take back control for one reason or another.

Luckily for elderly persons like me, the authors conclude that not much will change before 2030, but thereafter we will see a significant increase in data sensors and the transfer of information, autonomous systems and redundancy, although there will still be some men on board most tugs. Their reasoning is practical and sensible, and it is a paper well worth reading.

One aspect they ignore is, of course, the fact that the technological advances will all come with additional alarms. Much thought will be required to avoid the tug crews of the future being forced to live on a permanent diet of angry fruit salad.

RIP Jack Gaston

I cannot end this column without paying tribute to the late Jack Gaston, who died recently. Jack was a tug enthusiast, model-maker and writer who probably did more than anyone to introduce our industry to the general public. His books about tugs, aimed at the general reader, were clear and interesting and packed with wonderful photographs. More than that, he was a delightful companion and a real gentleman, whose presence at tug conferences and conventions was always welcomed by his many friends. We will miss him.


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 CEO of the renowned Hong Kong Salvage and Towage company. He now runs his own marine consultancy and was chairman of the International Tugmasters Association.