COLUMN | Required reading [Tug Times]

The bulk carrier Century Queen and the towboat Kaytlin Marie shortly after their collision on the Mississippi River in Louisiana on June 8, 2019 (Photo: US Coast Guard)

In America, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recently published their Safer Seas Digest 2020, a record of the 42 major incidents they investigated during the year and the lessons learned from those incidents.

There are several such digests published around the world, including the MAIB version in the United Kingdom and the CHIRP Maritime annual digest of safety reports, but the NTSB version stands out for its excellent illustrations and clear diagrams and an appealing design style that invites the reader to explore its pages. Each case is described in detail, then the NTSB include their findings and the remedies proposed to prevent similar incidents in the future.

There is a section describing the most common causes of the accidents, and these include our old friends fatigue, ineffective hull inspections and maintenance, inadequate training, improper voyage planning and inefficient communications. There are also some specific causes such as a failure to close vents and the failure of worn control linkages – something that appears to have happened recently on a Norwegian ship as well, so as always we can conclude that safety lessons are universal.

A map shows the location of the cases included and, as expected, many of them happened on the inland waterways, although there are a scattering of cases worldwide including the US Navy destroyer USS Fitzgerald, which was in collision on the Japanese coast.

“Of the 42 incidents described in the NTSB report, no less than 25 involve tugs and/or barges.”

Being a foreigner, I was particularly interested in the page that attempted to explain the factors that determine whether the NTSB or the US Coast Guard take control of an investigation. After reading it several times I can reveal that I still have no idea. A long paragraph with odd punctuation and no full stops reads like gibberish. This is a minor complaint when the rest of the publication is so good, but it would be nice to know the answer. Perhaps next year.

You may be wondering why I am spending so much time writing about a single safety publication when this column is supposed to devoted to tugs and related topics, so I will come to the point. Of the 42 incidents described, no less than 25 involve tugs and/or barges.

Perhaps this is not unusual in a nation with vast navigable lakes and rivers and precious few ocean-going vessels, but it shocked me. Even when you ignore the cases involving large numbers of barges being pushed by a single tug, which is a very American phenomenon, the numbers are still alarming, so I decided to take a closer look and found lessons that are valuable wherever you live.

Take the case of the tug Kaytlin Marie, which was proceeding down the Mississippi River in Louisiana towards her next towing job when she met the inbound bulk carrier Century Queen at around 12:15 local time on June 8, 2019. Both vessels had pilots on board, but for some reason the tug moved towards the starboard bank while the bulker moved towards the bank on her port side. As a result, they ended up in the same place and collided.

Among the excuses given by various parties was that the vessel heading downriver should propose the passing arrangement, that passing arrangements were not normally made with tugs that were free-running (because there are so many of them), and that vessels heading downriver have right of way. If you are confused by these unwritten “rules,” you are not alone, but the NTSB concluded that “it is critical to establish early communication,” and “Rules of the Road must supersede local practices or habits.”

Dare I suggest these findings are not entirely helpful? Either you use early communication to agree to deviate from COLREGS, or you follow the rules so no communication is required. There are numerous examples of collisions caused when ships agreed to deviate from COLREGS, so perhaps it would be better to simply stick to the rules.

On a pleasing note, an aerial photograph taken shortly after the collision shows five other tugs arriving to help, which does them great credit.

“The days when the master could be godlike, strong, silent or stand-offish are long gone.”

Moving eastwards to the Elizabeth River in Virginia, a pilot was unberthing a bulk carrier and reversing it to a nearby turning basin. Unfortunately, the vessel’s astern speed was too great for the tugs to control the manoeuvre properly, and the stern tug was crushed against a jetty. The investigation revealed that the pilot normally worked with modern tractor tugs, but on this occasion, he was using conventional tugs that appear to have been less powerful and less manoeuvrable – factors he may not have taken into account when planning the operation.

A lack of effective communication was again cited as a contributory factor.

I suppose we should congratulate the tug master for placing his tug between the bulk carrier and the jetty as a makeshift fender because the damage might have been much greater if the ship hit it without a well-fendered tug between them, but this is not mentioned in the report, so perhaps the tug’s positioning was not intentional.

The final example I will mention became famous on social media, because somebody filmed the moment when the passenger vessel Norwegian Epic destroyed a couple of mooring dolphins as it attempted to berth at San Juan Cruise Port in Puerto Rico. According to the investigation report, the master and pilot agreed that the pilot would control the approach to the berth, while the master would perform the actual berthing. At the time the vessel’s starboard engine was not working, but with the port engine and all the thrusters fully operational, it was felt that the berthing could go ahead.

When the master took the con, the pilot continued to instruct the tugs, which is not unusual, but in this case we are told the master was “not communicative” and the pilot gave orders to the tugs in Spanish, which the bridge team could not understand. The investigators concluded that, at one point, the master and pilot were taking directly contradictory actions that cancelled each other out! As a result, the vessel assaulted the dolphins and did almost US$4 million worth of damage.

This question of the language used between pilots and tugs, workboats, mooring gangs, etc., was also addressed in a MARS report earlier this year, and often causes confusion. Sadly, it is unrealistic to expect all port workers around the globe to start speaking English, so the responsibility rests with masters to demand an explanation when they do not understand the orders being given, and with pilots to offer an explanation without being asked. The days when the master could be godlike, strong, silent or stand-offish are long gone.

Safety lessons are often universal, and there are plenty of lessons we can all learn from the latest NTSB Digest. It is, in my opinion, required reading.

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.