COLUMN | Are we having fun yet? [Tug Times]

An example of indirect towing being performed (Photo: Peel Ports Group)

An excellent video popped up on social media recently, showing a tug using indirect towing to assist a ship along a channel. The tug’s master was carefully controlling the heel angle, but for a time it was fairly obvious they were pushing the limits to see how much heel they could generate. They held the tug with more than half the maindeck under water before easing off slightly and carrying on with the job.

My immediate reaction was one of delight. Here was a captain showing off his or her considerable skills on a modern tug designed for the task, and the man or woman at the helm was obviously having fun. As someone who spent most of his career being paid to have fun, I thought it was marvelous.

The armchair experts who feel entitled to comment on all things about which they know nothing were quick to condemn the video. “The captain was a cowboy,” “If a maindeck door had been left open the tug would fill up with water and capsize,” and “Such behaviour should not be allowed” were among the comments by ignorant people who probably never had fun in their lives. I tried to explain what was going on, but my one comment was drowned in a tide of abuse by people who obviously thought they knew better.

“It is only possible to enjoy the experiences I am describing when your training and equipment are fit for purpose and your vessel is reliable.”

A sight I always enjoy in Hong Kong is a Marine Police interceptor racing through the harbour at speeds that make a mockery of the prevailing speed limits. The boat handlers are highly trained, but the overwhelming impression is of a bunch of young men and women having fun as part of their jobs. Good luck to them, I say.

Of course it is only possible to enjoy the experiences I am describing when your training and equipment are fit for purpose and your vessel is reliable – misplaced confidence often turns out to be no fun at all. Some of my most fun-loving friends are involved in training tug masters, and I suspect they gain a great deal of confidence from the fact that companies that are prepared to invest so much in training have probably already invested in good tugs and are keen to ensure nobody breaks them.

Not everyone enjoys their job, of course. Being seasick on a tug in a typhoon is not much fun, but I noticed that as soon as we reached a casualty and had something interesting to do, the seasickness vanished and we started to enjoy ourselves. Perhaps that is one of the great things about tugs – the work is often interesting in ways that our “big ship” brethren will never experience. But on the other hand, many of our colleagues do not have the superb equipment and training they deserve.

Speaking of our big ship brethren, they are still having a miserable time of it, with many doing vastly extended tours while many others languish at home and are unable to get back to sea. And despite the best efforts of individuals and a number of industry bodies, there is still no universal plan to get them vaccinated and get them on and off their ships.

“Our own industry is helping to destroy our reputation by circulating the nonsense, instead of using facts to ridicule the lies, evasions and half-truths.”

This dilemma is still widely ignored by the world’s press. Presumably it is less exciting than stacks of containers falling off boxships (or tankers, as they are often called by the fourth estate). Bloomberg were at it again recently, with one Ann Koh claiming that pressure to speed deliveries is raising the risk of safety errors, while weather is getting more unpredictable. She is apparently unaware that container ships are generally in a hurry, and weather forecasting is now better than it has ever been. According to her, the pressure for shipping lines to deliver the surging numbers of e-commerce products as quickly as possible is increasing the pressure, so it is lucky nobody in the past ever wanted their goods delivered on time, I suppose.

Captains are no longer deviating from storms but are going through them to save fuel and time due to pressure from charterers, says Ms Koh, who presumably thinks most owners have stopped paying for weather routing advice, and are ignoring the numerous examples where weather routing has saved both time and fuel by advising owners and managers to avoid bad weather.

Most recent container losses have been in the Pacific Ocean, which, according to Bloomberg, has the busiest traffic and the worst weather. All together, children – “Oh no, it doesn’t!”

The fact that seafarers are exhausted increases the chance of mishaps, because they no longer have time to check container lashing or rectify the “potentially poor” maintenance of twistlocks and lashings. Note there is absolutely no evidence for this, but it is “potentially” true. Indeed, hidden away in the piece is the rather feeble disclaimer that so far “none of the recent container accidents has been directly attributed to safety lapses,” but this did not stop Ms Koh writing several pages on the topic.

What upsets me most is that this drivel has been re-posted without comment on maritime sites whose owners should know better. Our own industry is helping to destroy our reputation by circulating the nonsense, instead of using facts to ridicule the lies, evasions and half-truths.

When I find such garbage on a maritime “news” site, I immediately unsubscribe and have nothing more to do with it. After all, there are plenty of sites that seem to manage with true stories – you are visiting one now – so why bother with drivel?

What’s more, it is fun to punish the wrongdoers by reducing their circulation and hence potential sources of advertising revenue. Give it a try and soon, with any luck, we will all be having fun.

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.