COLUMN | Living on a diet of garbage [Tug Times]

Photo: Boskalis

I long ago stopped believing almost anything I read in the press, and the recent blockage of the Suez Canal has spawned another round of questionable reporting.

One BBC scribe produced an article about the build-up of sulphur dioxide from all the ships waiting for the canal to be cleared, and claimed their emissions “helped push” the concentration of SO2 in the air to five times normal levels on the Mediterranean side of the canal, where most waiting vessels were anchored. The author used the satellite image below to illustrate his point.

Photo: Copernicus Data

The lack of a similar build-up in the Red Sea was, apparently, because fewer vessels were waiting there.

Fascinating, but not really paying sufficient attention to the facts, in my opinion. One set of official figures claimed there were 154 vessels waiting in the Mediterranean, 42 in the Great Bitter Lakes and 171 in the Red Sea. So there were actually more vessels at the southern end of the canal, yet they appear to have been emitting nothing. Perhaps they were all burning ultra-low-sulphur fuel.

The reporter then commented on plans to make the Mediterranean an Emission Control Area, and used the satellite image below to demonstrate how vessel emissions are polluting the Middle Sea.

Photo: Copernicus Data/European Space Agency

It does not take a genius to notice that the heaviest concentrations of pollutants are located not at sea, but directly over places which are helpfully labelled Cadiz, Tangier, Algeciras, Gibraltar, Malaga, Grenada and even a long way inland at Seville. The obvious conclusion is that we need to get rid of cities and send their populations to sea in order to reduce pollution.

“I have never met anyone in the tug and towage industry who was not dedicated to providing the best possible service to customers.”

Another organisation that used the blockage of the canal to make a point was the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), which issued a press release claiming, correctly, that the Ever Given case showed the importance of tug and towage workers, but then stating that their industry continues to cut “dangerous corners.”

The ITF used the case as a peg upon which to hang their claim that a major incident in the Panama Canal “could be imminent due to significant reductions in manning and excessive overtime by a short-staffed workforce.” I do not know enough about the situation in Panama to comment, but the authors then made the remarkable claim that the situation in Panama mirrors the situation across the globe, because the tug and towage industry is engaged in “a global race to the bottom” where highly profitable corporations are exerting downward pressure on pricing for towage contracts in every corner of the globe.

Corners are being cut, local wages are falling, working conditions are deteriorating and fatigue is increasing, which leads to a growing risk of accident and injury. Major shipping companies such as Maersk group their contracts and demand unsustainable discounts. The ITF say it has been clear that the towage industry must stop cutting back on maintenance, must start buying reliable equipment again, and must renew their fleets and stop cutting back on training.

The ITF claims the excellence of the towing operation to unblock the Suez Canal demonstrated the highest standards of professionalism but could easily have gone wrong. Without the skill of the tug crews the vessel could have become unstable and containers could have been lost, resulting in even more delay.

These claims do not stand up long enough for me to knock them over, but I suppose a gullible public will believe them, and that is what matters.

The man on the Clapham omnibus will not know that Maersk owns the world’s largest tug company and is unlikely to want it falling apart or losing money, nor will he be aware that I have never met anyone in the industry who was not dedicated to providing the best possible service to customers. As for wages and working conditions, they are not falling anywhere near me, although I suppose some operators might have tightened their belts in response to declining vessel calls during the pandemic.

“No doubt the tug crews that came to Ever Given‘s rescue did all that was asked of them with their normal quiet efficiency.”

The general public will not know that new tug orders are burgeoning, or that most new tugs seem to be coming from quality designers and yards, and will be blissfully unaware of all the research and development that is going into making tugs more environmentally-friendly and fit for the future. Readers need look no further than the Baird Maritime website for numerous examples of excellence, but they will search in vain for signs of a “global race to the bottom.” In my humble opinion, the only reason to race for the bottom would be to look for somewhere to shove inaccurate reports.

Finally, and regretfully, I must take issue with the claim that the towing operation to free Ever Given could easily have gone wrong and resulted in an unstable vessel. No doubt the tug crews did all that was asked of them with their normal quiet efficiency, but we all know they had nothing to do with the stability of the vessel and were not making any of the big decisions. The owners had appointed Smit and Nippon Salvage to handle the refloating and the tugs, however good they were, did not call the shots.

Sadly, the diet of garbage will probably turn into a veritable feast as the blame game ramps up. The Suez Canal Authority will say its pilot was only advising the Master, who made all the mistakes, and every man and his dog will have both hands out for compensation. Perhaps the unfortunate ship will have to be renamed Ever Keeps On Giving.

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.