COLUMN | Accidents waiting to happen? [Tug Times]

Photo: Royal National Lifeboat Institution

I derive a lot of satisfaction from the small part I play in the CHIRP and MARS hazardous incident reporting schemes. In an era when maritime training is barely fit for purpose, at least we tell mariners about accidents and near misses and help them learn the lessons which, we hope, will prevent them repeating the cock-ups.

The indications are that the CHIRP and MARS reports are read by hundreds of thousands of people in the industry, both ashore and afloat. It is impossible to know how effective we are, but occasionally we learn how something we wrote or published has helped prevent a serious accident, which is a rich reward for the time we spend supporting the schemes.

By now, the ISM Code was supposed to have made shipping much safer and inculcated a genuine safety culture throughout the industry, but there is not much evidence that these goals have been achieved. In addition, the code does not normally apply to tugs and fishing vessels, which are among the more dangerous workplaces afloat.

One depressing aspect of working for the safety schemes is that we see the same types of accidents repeated over and over. Common repeaters are improper entry into enclosed spaces, slips and falls, working aloft or overside without proper safety gear, and falling overboard.

Ian Shields at CHIRP Maritime has created a searchable database of accident investigation reports from all the major (and many not-so-major) administrations, and keyword searches are depressing exercises – the same accidents repeating themselves and no sign of a reduction in frequency.

“…there is really no good reason why [lifejackets] should not be compulsory…”

I was pondering this while reading very sad news reports from the United States recently that the US Coast Guard had suspended the search for Ozzy Martinez, who fell from a tug near Jacksonville, Florida. At the time of writing, Mr Martinez has not been found, so spare a thought for his family who must be suffering terrible anxiety.

Some reports claim Mr Martinez was not wearing a lifejacket whilst transferring from his tug to a barge, which is a fairly common feature of similar incidents in the database. People wearing lifejackets seldom appear in official reports because, I would suggest, they tend to survive.

One of the more noteworthy comments on a local website appeared when a few readers wondered whether it might have been more sensible to wear a lifejacket. This prompted somebody to claim to have known the victim, and to assert Mr Martinez probably knew more about his business than all the readers combined. Since I was one of the readers and was already sailing as mate on an offshore supply vessel when Mr Martinez was born, I wonder if this was entirely accurate, but there is no doubt the writer believed it, and held that the victim was a superb seaman who knew exactly what he was doing.

In reply to the know-it-alls who asked about lifejackets, the writer implied they did not know what they were talking about and it was just an accident. Like it or not, he said, “Accidents happen.” The fact that they happen much more often to people who do not wear lifejackets was completely ignored.

Sadly, after the passage of so much time, it must be increasingly likely that Mr Martinez was killed, but I hope his death will not be in vain. The US Coast Guard will no doubt launch an investigation, but it will only be effective if it leads to a tightening of the rules for transfer between vessels, and an absolute requirement for tug crews to wear lifejackets whenever they are on deck. There are plenty of good designs which do not restrict mobility and will inflate automatically if a person goes into the water, so there is really no good reason why they should not be compulsory – as they are in many other parts of the world.

As for the fact that some common sense safety lessons have not penetrated to the American waterways, and many other places around the globe, I can only hope that eventually some light will pierce the gloom. The information is available, if people will only look for it.

“…when a tug goes aground or has a collision because the skipper was down on deck using his box of tricks…it will not be the owner, or the manufacturer of the gizmo, who goes to prison.”

Speaking of common sense, I was horrified to read that a Dutch company plans to equip one of their tugs with an American-manufactured wireless remote-helm control system so their tug master can operate helm, propulsion, pumps, winches, and windlass controls whilst wandering around the tug, thus “freeing mariners from the wheelhouse to conduct operations from any location that offers the greatest visibility and safety”.

Dare I suggest we already have a location which offers the greatest visibility and safety, and it is called the wheelhouse.

Obviously I am wrong in thinking that operating a tug from the wheelhouse, and keeping a good lookout in order to comply with the Collision Regulations is what we should be doing. A tug company manager soon corrects such old-fashioned thinking: “No longer bound to a fixed control station, our crew will use …. wireless helm to monitor operations from the tugboat’s (sic) upper decks or wherever visibility is greatest, a valuable capability that increases both productivity and safety. This system is intuitive to use and, once installed, will be valuable to our crews as they operate our vessel during challenging projects, such as large and overweight offshore tows”.

A spokesperson for the manufacturer added: “Improving visibility and at-sea safety is a game-changer for any marine operator …. which operates in challenging offshore conditions that include reduced visibility, waves and weather. Working conditions which fall into the ‘dull, dirty and dangerous’ category are ideally suited for our systems, as they support crews with new, innovative capabilities that deliver greater productivity, reliability and safety”.

I could rant for ages about how this sounds like an excuse to reduce crew numbers, adds another component which is likely to go wrong at the most awkward moment, and appears quite dangerous to me, but the system has already been approved for shipboard installation and trials by ABS and the US Coast Guard, so what do I know?

Well, I know that when a tug goes aground or has a collision because the skipper was down on deck using his box of tricks to connect or disconnect a tow, it will not be the owner, or the manufacturer of the gizmo, who goes to prison. Let us at least hope that, while the tugmaster is on walkabout, he is required to wear a lifejacket.

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.