It was a clear evening as two Boluda tugs in the Spanish port of Cartagena unberthed a ship and proceeded through the harbour to their next job. On the way, they noticed a severe fire burning at the base of a pedestal crane on shore, and diverted to investigate.
Their approach was blocked by a ship that was berthed adjacent to the crane, but they were able to direct the jets from their fire monitors over that vessel and onto the fire. Before long, two other Boluda tugs arrived and towed the ship clear, which allowed VB Cartagena and VB Asdrubal to successfully extinguish the blaze.
The tug crews’ swift and professional response probably saved the life of the crane operator, who had been trapped by the flames and was on the verge of becoming a statistic. He was later brought down by the local fire services using a telescopic ladder, and reports indicate he was uninjured.
In a press release, Boluda Towage rightly praised the tug crews for their prompt intervention and high degree of professionalism, and stated they were proud of their people.
Reading about this rescue, which is not an isolated incident in the world of harbour towage, led me on to darker thoughts about autonomous tugs. I recently had a conversation with a senior shipping man who told me the crew change situation is now so bad that all ships wishing to change crews in China are more or less forced to employ Chinese crews due to travel restrictions.
Similarly, all new ships built in China have to be manned locally for the same reason, and because all Chinese crews are vaccinated, whereas crews from India and the Philippines are generally not. This has resulted in a situation where the cost of Chinese crews is rising appreciably, and is currently around 10 per cent higher than before the pandemic. According to my informant this cost increase, albeit fairly modest, has scared many shipowners into taking a harder look at the possibility of doing away with crews altogether.
“Proponents of autonomous tugs continue to bombard us with good and not-so-good reasons for getting rid of our crews.”
This raises the question of whether unmanned tugs would have been any use whatsoever in the Cartagena case. Would remote operators, stationed perhaps hundreds of miles away, have noticed the fire? And even if they did, would they have appreciated the seriousness and intervened, or would they simply have carried on to the next job? Would the unfortunate man in the crane have become a statistic? I cannot answer those questions, but I suspect most of us would assume the worst.
Yet proponents of autonomous tugs continue to bombard us with good and not-so-good reasons for getting rid of our crews. One of the more ridiculous justifications came recently from a consortium led by Voith. With international competition, the costs of tugs are more relevant today than ever before, they tell us, so it is essential to find new ways to improve efficiency and increase competitiveness.
Is it? Surely if your port produces something the world needs, it does not matter what tugs in other ports are charging because the ships will come to you whatever the cost. If I could send a bunch of Hong Kong tugs to Australia and use Hong Kong crews earning Hong Kong wages, I could corner the market, but I can’t, so the argument is invalid in my opinion.
But it gets worse. The Voith consortium has claimed that “standardised, automated tugboat (sic) assistance will significantly reduce costs for shipping companies and port operators and increase the speed of individual ship manoeuvres….every minute spared represents a considerable cost reduction. In addition, with a remotely operated tug fleet, it is possible to reduce construction and operating costs.”
How autonomous tugs will be so much quicker is not explained. I suppose we just have to accept that Brutus is an honourable man.
They do, however, explain how the tugs will be cheaper. Without crews they will not need common rooms or sanitary facilities. Noise insulation can be eliminated, and why will we need a wheelhouse? These savings will reduce weight, making tugs more manoeuvrable and reducing energy consumption. There will no longer be any need for a deck house to accommodate towing gear. Furthermore, the unmanned tugs will increase crew safety by doing away with the crew, and all critical manoeuvres will be controlled from a safe distance.
Many years ago, I regularly saw floating docks and local vessels without sanitary facilities. Instead, they had a flimsy wooden shed hanging outside the bulwarks with a hole cut in the floor, through which bodily emissions could be transferred directly to the marine environment. Perhaps the consortium are planning a return to these more colourful times, because I am sorry to be the one to inform them that maintenance teams and others who will still need to go on board autonomous tugs might still be guilty of producing human waste. They might also be guilty of wanting noise levels to be acceptable, but the best way to overcome this objection is to ignore it, I suppose.
Finally, if we need a deck house in which to protect our towing gear today, I wish they would explain why it will suddenly become unnecessary tomorrow.
“I expect orders are already flooding in for the new system from people who will believe anything that promises to save them a dollar or two.”
They also fail to explain how tug operations that take place in close quarters today will be conducted at a safe distance tomorrow. Have they invented even more new technology they are not telling us about?
The sting in the tail is that the consortium does not intend that all tugs should be autonomous: “The basic principal is to replace one or several tugs in a team with unmanned vessels. The remote control is done on board one of the other boats involved.”
So while some tugs are stripped to the bone, other tugs will require more people and more technology in order to control them. This sounds like extra cost to me, but the consortium does not mention it so I must be mistaken.
It is fairly obvious that this ridiculous blurb is not aimed at you or I, gentle reader, because we might see through it. But to the average bean counter it will sound like a quick shortcut to the promised land, and we all know that too many companies today are run by bean counters. I expect orders are already flooding in for the new system from people who will believe anything that promises to save them a dollar or two.
My only consolation is to picture delivery day at the shipyard that builds these fine vessels. The bean counters arrive from their luxury hotel where they have enjoyed a hearty breakfast, and sign a few delivery documents, whereupon they are whisked away to the best local restaurant for a sumptuous lunch and considerable quantities of alcohol, and urged to try a plate of the local delicacy, which might not appear appetizing.
Suitably replete, they are whisked back to the shipyard and invited to take a short cruise on their new vessel. The noise is intolerable, and the first gentle motion of the vessel sees the majority of bean counters turning green. The senior bean counter rushes up to the yard staff and asks the location of the heads, only for the smiling local to point to a flimsy wooden apparatus hanging over the side. Sadly, one thunder box is insufficient for a dozen nauseous bean counters, who soon find themselves knee-deep in human waste.
The triumphal cruise quickly turns into a disaster, but the remote operator ashore is unaware of the problem and the cruise continues.
Fortunately, two Boluda tugs are passing and the skippers soon realise something is amiss. Later, Boluda Towage rightly praise the crews for their prompt intervention and high degree of professionalism, and state they are very proud of their people.
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.