COLUMN | Signs of recovery? [Tug Times]

COLUMN | Signs of recovery? [Tug Times]

The Marshall Islands-flagged VLOC Stellar Banner after it had run aground off northern Brazil on February 24, 2020 (Photo: Vale)

After months of relative gloom, I detect signs of improvement for the towage and salvage industry. My dejection started to lift when I saw the Allianz Safety and Shipping Review 2020, which tells us that shipping losses are at a record low, having fallen no less than 20 per cent in the past year, and 70 per cent over the past ten years.

This may not sound like good news if you are a starving salvor, but Allianz was kind enough to list ten future challenges as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, almost all of which would lead to more accidents. These include the inability to do crew changes, which will lead to more fatigue and mental instability and in turn might lead to more accidents. It might also lead to less careful maintenance and a greater number of machinery failures, already one of the major causes of insurance claims.

At the same time, there may be a reduction in the number of surveys and inspections, so potential hazards may not be identified. There may also be a reduction in the ability of emergency services to respond to accidents and incidents, while the large number of laid-up tankers and passenger ships are likely to be vulnerable to extreme weather, piracy and even political instability.

Finally, the good people at Allianz point out that, in an economic downturn, crewing and maintenance budgets are often the first things to be cut, which leads to all kinds of incidents which tend to benefit towage and salvage companies. And this should be of particular interest to our industry, because we are not likely to make much money out of vessels which sink, but we can all profit from accidents and incidents which are less than fatal, and these are up five per cent year-on-year, with incidents on Ro-Ro vessels up 20 per cent. And the most common type of incident is machinery failure which, with any luck, will require the services of tugs.

In addition, almost 200 fires were reported last year, an increase of 13 per cent, and attempted cyber attacks on shipping increased by 400 per cent.

Allianz points out that new technology is not a panacea, but an increasingly useful tool. In my view it may be an increasingly useful source of revenue for our industry and, since many tugs remain low-tech, it is likely that cyber attacks and technology failures will help fill our coffers in the future because we will still be operating while the sophisticated ships are coming to a grinding halt.

If I was building tugs today, I would resist the temptation to festoon them with technology and concentrate on producing ships which were reliable and not particularly vulnerable to failures of flashy new monitoring systems. I might even put the money I saved into better training for my engineers so they did not need to be told when to clean the filters.

Another strand of the good news which has been coming my way recently is the remarkable number of new tugs both ordered and delivered. They seem to be rolling down the slipways at a remarkable rate, ready for all the disasters which the good people at Allianz are predicting.

Perhaps the most noteworthy is Seaway Guardian, which was recently delivered to the US Department of Transportation’s St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation. Designed by Robert Allan Ltd., it is a TundRA 3600 tug which appears to be ideally suited for local conditions in the Seaway.

Remarkably, it is the first new American-built tug to join the corporation’s fleet since the St. Lawrence Seaway opened 61 years ago, and took two years to build at a cost of US$24 million. This, I suppose, is either a total vindication or a terrible indictment of the Jones Act, depending upon your point of view. I know many of my American friends will see it as a positive, although I can’t help thinking I could buy twice as many tugs and get them delivered in half the time for the same money where I live.

A possible reason why this is their first new tug for 61 years can be seen when we consider the tug it is replacing – the 62-year-old Robinson Bay – which, remarkably, will stay on for the foreseeable future as a back-up. Let us hope they donate the poor old thing to a museum somewhere before it is too late.

Staying in North America, some excellent recent appointments are also good news for our industry. The Towing Vessel Inspection Bureau (TVIB) have named Tava Foret as their new President, while Lauren Jeppson becomes Executive Vice President. TVIB is a non-profit trade organisation which carries out marine audits and surveys for more than 90 tug operators in the USA.

Both appointments were by internal promotion, and Foret has been with the organisation since it was founded in 2010. The announcement of her appointment lauded her “passion and deep knowledge of the towing industry.” Jeppson has been with TVIB since 2013 and has been involved in all aspects of its operations. They sound like ideal appointments.

Another ideal appointment was made by the American Salvage Association (ASA) when they named Lindsay Malen-Habib as their new President. Lindsay will need no introduction to people in the salvage industry, having deep family roots in the business and having worked in senior roles with Titan and Resolve Marine.

Three excellent appointments of people who are obviously ideal for the positions they now hold. And that should be all we need to say, so I was rather disappointed when the ASA saw the need to add that Ms. Malen-Habib’s appointment “is also a historic event for the organisation, as she is the first woman to serve as its president.” I feel rather uncomfortable that they needed to say it, because it raises a suspicion of tokenism. In my view, the TVIB handled things better by making it obvious they had promoted the most suitable people, and totally ignoring the fact that they happen to be women.

The final item in this month’s list of good news is the utter stupidity of some shipping people. Hong Kong and Singapore made it very easy to do crew changes during the Covid-19 outbreak, and were a shining example to other ports around the world.

So how did the industry repay them for their generosity of spirit? Some moronic crewing agents ignored the ICS guidelines and sent in crews who were infected with the virus!

Both Hong Kong and Singapore have now made it much more difficult to do a crew change, although it is perhaps a sign of their good will towards the shipping industry that they have not made it completely impossible. I think this is excellent news because the addle-pated lamebrains who ignored all common sense and every guideline to send infected crewmembers to the small number of ports which were allowing crew changes are probably the same fools who will be in charge of the ships which we rely upon to provide us with business.

Their cheapskate ways will guarantee there is money to be made by salvors and tug companies in future, and things will become even better when they apply their cost-cutting stupidity to autonomous vessels. We may be on the verge of a new Golden Age of salvage and towage.

The reference to golden age allows me to mention two anniversaries which should not be overlooked. Congratulations to Robert Allan Ltd. on their 90 years in business, and to Smit Singapore on 45 years. Neither company needs any introduction, but I consider myself fortunate to have worked with them both.

See more stories from this month’s Tug and Salvage Week here.

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.