COLUMN | Forging ahead despite the coronavirus [Tug Times]

Photo: Damen

We read so much about the disruptions to business caused by the Covid-19 virus, and many of us see the effects every day in our own businesses, so it is quite remarkable just how much is happening at the moment.

I did a brief survey over one week, chosen at random but very recent, and the amount of industry and innovation that was reported was very impressive. There were a number of new tug deliveries and most appeared to be on time, which is a testament to the way our shipyards have managed to overcome the difficulties posed by the pandemic. Even better, perhaps, is the fact that deliveries were reported in the Americas, Europe and Asia, so the success of the shipyards is not confined to any specific area.

We also saw the launching of the new electric tug for the Ports of Auckland (pictured). This could be a game-changer, particularly in countries where electricity is generated by thermal or hydro-electric methods.

Among the more noteworthy reports was news that Lloyd’s Register (LR) has given approval-in-principal to Belgian company BeHydro for the development of a hydrogen-powered dual-fuel engine, the first units of which will be installed in a tug. This is only a preliminary step, based on a review of the engine documentation, but it allows the project to go ahead. LR will ensure the safety of the engines using either existing rules or, where new technology is involved, a risk-based approach.

The engines are expected to reduce CO2 emissions by as much as 85 per cent and, when hydrogen is not available, they will run more messily on conventional fuel. The first engines will be fitted to a 65-tonne bollard pull tug for the Port of Antwerp, but larger engines are also on the drawing board and mono-fuel hydrogen engines are planned, which will eliminate CO2 emissions altogether.

Meanwhile, in Japan, NYK and its subsidiaries were conducting a second round of tests on an autonomous tug in Tokyo Bay. Having previously navigated the tug remotely from a control centre 400 kilometres away, they concentrated on testing what would happen if equipment or communications malfunctioned. Apparently, one of the default actions is to stop the tug then navigate slowly to the next waypoint – possibly not an ideal solution if the tug happens to be under the bows of a large bulk carrier at the time – but my intention here is merely to applaud the effort, not comment on the foolishness of the idea (for which see almost all my other columns).

Meanwhile, and nearby, another leading Japanese company has been experimenting with a new form of biodiesel. Mitsui OSK Lines (MOL) has been burning a “renewable biodiesel fuel” on one of its tugs. The fuel is a mix of used cooking oil and a type of seaweed (both ingredients readily available in Japan, I suppose) and is said to be suitable for marine diesel engines without the need for any modifications.

“It makes a horrible kind of sense that owners will not necessarily spend money on a system that will help their watchkeepers.”

Back in Belgium another innovative product that, at first glance, sounds like a boon for all deck watchkeepers is the new virtual watchkeeper from Westray. We are told that Westray’s goal is to achieve a safer and more cost-efficient future for the maritime industry by using artificial intelligence, machine learning, and sensor fusion to bring all the navigation and collision avoidance information on the bridge together in a form that is very easy for the officer of the watch to understand.

This will help, “1.6 million officers to enhance their abilities,” by better understanding what is going on around them, alerting them to incoming dangers or unidentified vessels, and offering a clear visual overview in dense traffic areas both day and night. By the time you read this, tests on a vessel in European waters may already be under way.

This sounds like a brilliant use of technology, and I was all in favour until I read a sentence that was not exactly front and centre in the marketing blurb: “We have established partnerships,” blah blah blah, “for one-man bridge operations using the virtual watchkeeper.”

At this point, all my happy feelings turned to dust. It makes a horrible kind of sense that owners will not necessarily spend money on a system that will help their watchkeepers, but will be queueing up for a system that permits them to perpetuate the awful one-man bridge arrangement.

“Our industry has not only managed to keep going, but has continued to develop and innovate during the pandemic.”

As I stated above, my intention was not to rant, but to applaud the efforts of numerous individuals who continue to research, innovate, and move our industry forward in these difficult times. So let me conclude by referring to another hard-working group of mariners, lawyers, and social scientists at the World Maritime University (WMU), who recently published a study entitled A Culture of Adjustment: Evaluating the implementation of the current regulatory framework on rest and work hours.

It should not come as any surprise that the authors find the current rules on rest hours are largely ignored, malpractices are widespread, the regulations and their policing are ineffective, and manning levels are generally inadequate. They say in no uncertain terms that the ISM Code is not achieving some of its fundamental objectives, and a two-watch system is incompatible with hours of rest requirements.

I spent about twenty years on tugs and offshore supply vessels working a two-watch system and it never did me any harm, but that was in the days before paperwork (i.e., the ISM Code) and before tugs could receive instant communications from every Tom, Dick and Harry in the office. There were no women in management in those days, of course, so Tom, Dick and Harry are not sexist in this context.

Today, there is no doubt the report is correct, and a two-watch system is incompatible with hours of rest requirements. For a start, there are now women in management and I leave it to your imagination, gentle reader, to decide whether this has reduced the amount of time wasted as the men on board are repeatedly instructed to explain themselves. I hasten to stress, lest I be accused of sexist rhetoric, that I never worked for a female manager, so I can only base my suspicions on having been married for more than forty years.

The only problem with the WMU report is that individual companies will not be able to implement the recommendations without putting themselves at a significant commercial disadvantage to their competitors. It is time for the regulators to step in and make it compulsory for all companies to take action.

Overall, I think we can take some pride in the way our industry has not only managed to keep going, but has continued to develop and innovate during the pandemic. Now we need the regulators to show the same level of commitment and give us minimum safe manning levels that are truly safe, and ban one-man bridge operations forever.

And on that note, I hope 2021 will be better for everyone.

Happy New Year!

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.