COLUMN | Accidents still happen [Tug Times]

Photo: US Coast Guard

“To err is human; to forgive, divine.”

Alexander Pope

On the face of it, the news for the towing industry is good this month. It has just been announced that, for the first time, the global total of vessels above 100 GRT has exceeded 100,000 ships. According to Clarksons Research, the world fleet now stands at 100,001 vessels with an average size of 21,355 DWT and an average age of 21.7 years. Fifteen years ago there were only 70,000 ships, and they were less than half the size, on average.

This results in more business for our tugs, and bigger ships will result in more bollard pull and a higher towing tariff, so we should celebrate.

Unfortunately, we have also seen two recent accidents that took the lives of several seafarers on a pusher tug and an offshore vessel, so our celebrations should be muted. It will be some time before we know what happened in those cases, but I have looked at the two most recent tug casualty reports I could find, to see what lessons can be learned. Both reports were issued by the same developed nation, and when I tell you that the youngest of the tugs was 56 years old you will probably know where we are.

“There is nothing more depressing than accidents that happen when similar accidents have happened before and we know very well how to prevent them.”

In the first case, the tug was laid up with an engineer on board as watchman, and the single working generator appears to have thrown a piston and/or connecting rod through the oil reservoir, causing a fire and US$1.35 million worth of damage. A number of factors contributed to the seriousness of the fire, including open engine room doors and the failure to close fuel shut-off valves. The watchman was unable to deal with the rapidly-accelerating conflagration, but escaped and was not seriously injured.

In the other case, an even older tug was pushing barges up a river when a main engine suffered a connecting rod assembly failure and a breach of the crank case. This failure likely led to hot fuel and oil spraying into the lower engine room and igniting, causing US$2 million in damage. Although the engine room doors were closed, windows in the upper part of the space were open and could not be closed from outside the engine room. The generator became starved of combustion air and shut down, rendering the single fire pump inoperable.

Of the two large semi-portable fire extinguishers in the upper engine room, one was rapidly engulfed by flames whilst the other was accessible. Unfortunately, when the crew attempted to operate it, the hose came away in their hands. In any event, the investigators considered the extinguisher was too far away from the source of the fire to have done much good.

The crew were eventually forced to evacuate to the barges and were rescued by nearby vessels. It is important to stress that the evidence indicates the crew had conducted regular drills and had plans in place to fight an engine room fire, and they appear to have acted properly and bravely throughout.

Neither tug had a fixed fire-extinguishing system in the engine room.

Accidents happen, but there is nothing more depressing than accidents that happen when similar accidents have happened before and we know very well how to prevent them. We are all aware that the engine room is probably the most dangerous place on a tug, with numerous potential accidents waiting to happen, but despite hundreds of similar cases in the past some crews are still not given the tools they need to prevent foreseeable disasters.

We really have to wonder what the regulators are thinking, as well, since one of their jobs is to ensure tugs are safe. Is it too much to expect them to have a simple safety check-list for laid-up vessels, or rules that ensure it is actually possible to fight an engine room fire?

Years ago, when we were building tugs in Japan, we discovered that some yards had a sliding scale based upon class and flag. The most expensive combination in those days was Lloyd’s Register and Hong Kong flag, although it might have changed in the intervening years. Part of the problem with the Hong Kong flag was the extra firefighting equipment, which even extended to a requirement for all tugs and workboats to be equipped with a hand-operated pump on deck, away from the machinery spaces, with a dedicated hose and nozzle so there was always water available to fight a fire in the accommodation or store rooms.

That is a very minor example, but something must have happened to a Hong Kong vessel deep in the mists of time that convinced the authorities it was a good idea.

“If crews see something they know is wrong or faulty or dangerous, they should say so loudly and repeatedly.”

Regulators should rightly face the wrath of the columnist, in my opinion, because they generally investigate accidents so they know what can go wrong. The problem is, in many administrations there seems to be a failure to communicate between different departments, so the numerous reports of, for example, engine room fires do not translate into better regulations to prevent them in the future.

Owners are not blameless, either, because accident investigation reports are widely available. At least one organisation, CHIRP Maritime, has even collected investigation reports from around the world and published them in a single database. Any owner who wants to know the likely perils his tug will face does not have to look very far.

And knowing the perils, it is not too difficult to devise a few counter-measures. If you discover there have been accidents because crews were not familiar with the equipment, just standardise equipment across the fleet and train the crews how to use it.

This is not difficult, but all too often there seems to be some kind of creeping inertia that prevents people from being proactive. They seem to think that by purchasing a design that meets the regulations, they have done all that is required. Our crews deserve better.

Of course, our crews could also do better. I have no patience with crews who accept whatever rubbish is handed to them. They are trained professionals, not helpless babies, and if they see something they know is wrong or faulty or dangerous, they should say so loudly and repeatedly.

From this you may have deduced that I have no patience with Alexander Pope and his pitiful reliance on forgiveness. I stand with Dylan Thomas and rage against the dying of the light. Woe betide anyone who goes gentle into that good night, and gives up without a fight. If I was Pope, I would be telling everyone, “To err is human; to do nothing about it, damnable.”

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.