COLUMN | Let the good times roll [Tug Times]

Photo: Taiwan Coastguard

Some days just seem to be better than others, and today is one of them. My normal morning sources of shipping news were just full of glad tidings, and it set me up nicely for the day ahead. The reason for my good humour was the sheer volume of encouraging news for the salvage industry.

It all started with the story of a 7,000-tonne cargo ship abandoned by its crew off Taiwan. Apparently, they thought the ship was sinking so they sent out a distress call from the fringes of a typhoon. The crew were rescued by helicopter, but in their eagerness to depart they left the engines running and the ship carried on into the path of the typhoon at a stately three knots.

A coastguard cutter shadowed this early example of an autonomous ship to warn off innocent vessels that might be at risk of collision, and she eventually ground to a halt when her fuel ran out. A salvage tug was hired and the listing casualty was safely brought to shelter off Kaohsiung.

This is not the first time a crew has forgotten to stop the engines prior to jumping off their ship. A case a couple of years ago in Hong Kong was probably even more lucrative for the salvage industry, because that vessel ran itself aground and provided endless hours of lucrative fun for all concerned.

It appears that absent-mindedness is becoming more common as crews become less professional, so we should all celebrate our impending good fortune.

Accidents waiting to happen

On the same day in the southern Kurils, a fish factory vessel reported a fire on board and requested evacuation – no easy task when there were 412 people on board. It seems crews are now cutting out the intermediate stage of taking to the lifeboats and demanding to be taken off directly into a rescue vessel.

In the event, reports say 363 people were taken off by nearby fishing vessels whilst the remainder of the crew stayed to fight the fire, which started in the fish packaging material on board. Apparently, fish packaging material is the most common source of fires on fish factory ships, but the people involved have not been able to come up with ways of preventing such outbreaks. Good on them, I say.

Meanwhile the ship is disabled and tugs are on the way, so more of our colleagues will benefit and there is every chance we will see many similar cases in the future. Happy days!

Some of this erosion of competence is probably linked to the low wages and poor conditions which guarantee that top professionals will continue to avoid sailing on such dubious vessels.

Presumably, these monarchs of the ocean all had SMS manuals and documents of compliance, and had been issued with the necessary certificates, but they were still accidents waiting to happen so rejoice ye salvors, and tugmen be of good cheer.

Reports on the same day featured Noah’s Ark (or one of the reproductions thereof), sitting on a barge and about to be towed from the Netherlands to Tilbury. There are two or three Arks around at the moment, and they have been involved in some accidents already, bless them. A religious man might claim the accidents are God’s way of pointing out that He has copyright, and mortals who try to copy Him are going to cop it.

After all, I do not recall Mount Ararat being anywhere near Tilbury, and an Ark which can only accommodate 1,500 pairs of rather small animals is obviously not up to the exacting standards demanded by the Almighty in the original specifications. I expect the Tilbury tugpersons are rubbing their hands in anticipation of the expected windfall. For what we are about to receive…

“More oil, more tankers, more happy salvors”

Perhaps the erosion of competence referred to above is also spreading to the developed nations. A respected designer and builder of workboats has today announced that its crew transfer vessels will be fitted with accelerometer sensors to measure six degrees of freedom and gauge the motion whilst the boats are at sea.

A spokesperson boasts that, “if the captain can see the acceleration levels during sailing, this can be linked to the general well-being of the passengers.”

Once upon a time, the captain would have been able to judge the wellbeing of the passengers without an accelerometer, because that was his or her job and to ignore the wellbeing of the passengers generally resulted in being vomited on. If our captains are no longer competent then this is more good news for those of us who make a living from the misfortunes of others. Blessings!

Also today, shipbroker Gibson predicts that, “ship owners active in the clean tanker market stand to benefit from longer ton-mile demand,” while Europe is expected to see its crude production increase by 440,000 barrels per day between now and 2024, so crude exports from the region look set to increase. More oil, more tankers, more happy salvors. Oh joy.

Finally, today’s news was rounded off by a report that scrapping activity has fallen as freight rates have rebounded. Many people thought that there would be a surge in scrapping by September, but this is not now expected until October or November, after the Diwali festivities.

I have no idea why Diwali affects scrapping activity, but if freight rates continue to head north I doubt whether there will be much scrapping before Christmas (or even Passover and Ramadan, to mix my religious metaphors). Which means, of course, that there will be more rustbuckets trading beyond their sell-by dates, and we all know how lucrative that can be. My cup runneth over.

Not every day is as full of good news, but today has been a cracker which I celebrate with glee. Ships got into trouble, we got them out of it again, and nobody died in the process. If only we could say the same on all the other days, what a wonderful world this would be.


Alan Haig-Brown

Alan Roderick Haig-Brown is a Canadian novelist and non-fiction writer. He specialises in commercial marine and commercial fishing writing and photography. He is a regular contributor to a number of marine publications.