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Thanks to a book recommended to me by Kennebec Captain and my time spent reading it, I have found the words to express my frustration with Zero Tolerance Safety Programs with a couple of quotes.

“The point of risk management is not to prevent failure, for that is impossible. The point is to have a plan ready to manage and control failure when it inevitably comes.” 

“This may in fact be the real story of human and societal improvement. We talk a lot about risk management a nice hygienic phrase. But in the end, risk is necessary. Things can and will go wrong. Yet some have a better capacity to prepare for the possibility, to limit the damage, and to sometimes even retrieve success from failure.”

“When things go wrong, there seem to be three main pitfalls to avoid, three ways to fail to rescue. You could choose a wrong plan, an inadequate plan, or no plan at all. Say you’re cooking and you inadvertently set a grease pan on fire. Throwing gasoline on the fire would be a completely wrong plan.
Trying to blow the fire out would be inadequate.
And ignoring it “Fire? What fire?”would be no plan at all.”

These quotes are not my own, they are from a book (linked above) and a commencement speech.  I believe they illustrate perfectly what and how we should think about risk management as a practice.  The message we frequently get from management is the same old saw; “zero incidents, accidents, errors”.  While this has a nice ring to it and is a worthy goal, it’s not humanly possible and we know it.

Planning for failures that might occur however, is well within the realm of possibility.  Evidence of this kind of real world thinking is represented by our Vessel Spill Response Plans, salvage plans, voyage plans, operations manuals and training curricula.   These documents all articulate what to do “when” something happens or “if this happens, then”.  They are general in nature since it’s impossible to prepare for every possible permutation of events and write a specific procedure for each.  It’s left to our training and judgement after that.

High Reliability Organizations

A High Reliability Organization is one that while highly trained to avoid failure, is keenly aware of the cues that arise announcing an impending one.   The thing that makes them so reliable is that they are prepared and mindful enough to catch a bad series of events while they’re still “curable”.   But it’s not just their awareness, their resilience in the face of an event it’s how quickly they can get the situation under control and continue using the plans set in place for such an incident as a guide.

It’s not making a blanket statement of “incidents won’t happen because we don’t want them to”, it’s the real world.  The message is clear to me, coupled with proven safety procedures we need to recognize that, and prepare for WHEN things to go wrong.

The business of towing is full of risk, it’s why tug boats have fenders.  It’s a contact sport.  A sign on the bulkhead stating zero, zero and zero isn’t telling me how to accomplish it.  And you can bet Harry Potter’s magic wand is out of the question.

The ability to meet and assume that risk is tied to practical and relevant training standards.  The conflict between zero incident safety programs and reality is that if we were to eliminate all risk, nothing would get done.  Something in that statement seems to make some eyes glaze over and disconnect from the conversation.

Ships are safe in the harbor, but ships are meant to go to sea.”.

Someone has to take risks to make things happen.  Sailing across the ocean, space exploration, flying out of La Guardia Airport during bird migratory season.  None of these things happened because risk was eliminated, it was addressed and planned for.  If you think all risk can be eliminated and still see progress you’re kidding yourself.  By seeking that end you’ll find that you are paralyzed by every threat, real or imagined and taking a step ahead will never happen..

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Tugboats or towboats (whatever you prefer), share the fact that they go bump. More than a little and most of the time. It’s dangerous work and always has been.  That’s why they’re wrapped in rubber all the way around. The first time a new crew member steps on the boat we want to impress on them to be aware of their handholds at all times. “One hand for the boat, one hand for yourself”.  You definitely have a responsibility for your own safety.

The bump can come at any time of the day or night, in any weather, fair or foul. Getting “waked” by a passing boat or a hard contact under the bow of a container ship or maybe laying up alongside a raft of barges, it always has the potential to be a substantial impact.  Adding a little twist to that is the deckhand will usually be a couple to a few hundred feet away from the wheelhouse and may be out of our direct line of sight.  A radio in one hand and the other holding on during the approach is the rule.

If you give the facts their due, all that rubber wrapped tonnage has to make contact with unwrapped tonnage to do its job. It’s our raison d’etre. Sometimes the bump is gentle, sometimes it’s hard enough to jar a few fillings loose. The “bell-ringer” happens frequently enough that it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Someone is always training, but it’s not just the novices that score a hit every now and then.

The boys working the decks of boats doing scow work are accustomed to the bump. Scows don’t get all that much TLC, they’re built for the banging around they get. They bump and grind more than Gypsy Rose Lee.

Ship work involves getting “up close and personal” with the walls of steel that seem to pull you in with their own special kind of gravity. We really don’t want to land hard on a ship, but….

Even though oil barges are built with substantial steel framing and double hulls, we try very hard to avoid banging them around.   All that “explosiveness” should give one pause….not to mention the liability of opening one up anywhere.

Timing, weather and skill play a part in it all. But even the best boat handler’s have a hard bump now and again. It’s part of the job, tug boating is definitely a contact sport.

A deckhand has the primary risk to fall victim to a hard contact if he doesn’t have an eye on what’s happening and have a firm grip on something. The easiest way to go swimming (or worse) is to be approaching the berth and you’re on deck with your head up your ass dreaming of crew change, cold beer and warm women.

If you take the time to examine the way things happen it should come as no surprise that when you’re about to land alongside a couple of moored units they are not necessarily laying tightly packed together. There will be some slack in their lines, especially if the other units have been laid up for a tidal cycle or two.

Even though you’ve made the initial landing “eggshell safe”, once your first line is out and wrapped up the force of the tug working ahead or astern will now move ALL the barges until everything fetches up. Think “billiards”, one contacts another and so on until all the lines have taken up the strain.

It probably won’t be the initial contact that gets you, it’s the after shocks that are the killers. After some time aboard a tug and if you’ve really honed your “situational awareness”, you’ll learn that when two or more large steel boxes are in close proximity, there will be bumps (note the plural). The sometimes fatal mistake occurs when one forgets that simple fact.

In bad weather you’d probably (hopefully) have a keener awareness of how dangerous things are since footing becomes difficult in heavy snow or visibility is challenged in darkness, rain and wind. Work vests can restrict movement, safety glasses may be fogging and diesel exhaust will impair your vision, all good reasons to be cautious.

Fair weather dockings would seem to be of less concern, but you should be holding on anyway since you can be lured into that false sense of security by the balmy breeze and not notice how quickly the boat is closing with the berth.


Bumpity, bump, freakin’ bump.


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Mario Vittone

I am quite happy to see this new website come over the horizon.  I’ve read and listened to Mr. Vittone’s articles and seminars for a while now and find that he is the man in the know when it comes to things involving water safety and awareness.  Since he’s climbed into and out of more burning and sinking vessels than any of us, his words are especially welcome when it comes to filling in  the blanks of our cold water survival knowledge or even just recognizing a drowning. Link this one, bookmark it, pass it along on your Facebook page.  This one’s a keeper.

Looking forward to more good stuff from Mr. Vittone.

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We seem to take for granted the learning process when it comes to many things, not the least of which includes our physical motor skills and our cognitive ability to quantify a situation as good or bad.  Let’s take walking for example, you learn how to balance and toddle along very young, much to your mother’s delight.  Soon after that, the joyful look on Mom’s face becomes terror when you’ve learned how to run, and of course, you run with abandon everywhere.   You haven’t learned when it’s okay to run, you just run.  But in trying to teach you, Mom and Dad had to let you take a couple of  falls. Soon enough you get the idea that running is good some of the time, but not a good idea all of the time.  The first time you touch something hot serves a painful lesson, but it’s then we learn that fire is hot and ice is cold.  All the skills we acquire as we grow lead us to becoming an adult with the capacity to view our world as a collection of safe/unsafe, fun/scary, dangerous/fun or stupid moves.

“The triple bridges up the Hackensack closed on him after giving him permission to proceed. This was about 2 am and everything up there is pitch black. As soon as he realized the bridge was coming down, he threw it into full reverse, but it wasn’t soon enough. He did lose his job but the USCG did not take any action against him. They had the radio conversation on tape and exonerated him.”

When in comes to tugs and tows one could spend all day describing the mind-set needed by a boat handler but in the end it has to be learned.  The training wheels come off pretty early and the actual boat handling begins  as soon as the ticket  is in hand.  The hard part isn’t what one might think, it’s not the timing of the throttle or depth perception, it’s situational awareness.

All of the things that come into play while maneuvering a tug and tow for transits, docking, sailings, or re-configuring are subject to being re-evaluated as they progress or deteriorate using every input, hunch, suspicion, or sensation. Recognizing that things have gone bad is not easy.  You’d think it would be in your gut, but novice boat handlers don’t have the judgement or experience that exposes the “bad stuff” early in the maneuver. Knowing when to pull the plug is the hard part.  Recognizing it too late and then pushing a bad situation in the hopes of saving the day will end badly.  So it serves a boatman to understand his limitations well before any operation is undertaken.  Proper planning prevents piss poor performance.

The towing industry is a contact sport, shit happens and we’ve all had our share of “bell ringers” and bad days.  The key is to learn from them.  But, recognizing the threshold of disaster is a difficult matter when it comes to to training someone for it.  In order to make that determination, you have to see things go bad and “live it”.  That threshold  is usually reached well before things go wrong.  The chain of failure starts earlier than one might think (these days referred to as the “root cause”).  When a novice is training he practices voyage planning, sailings,  transits, and dockings.  He or she is watched and guided to safely execute the maneuvers, but they need to be allowed to screw it up (to a point).  The best lesson is one that has some “pucker factor” at work.  The greater the “pucker”, the more unforgettable the lesson.

The mark of a mature boatman is apparent when and how he deals with a bad situation.  Any novice who’s had a bit of time behind the wheel can sail and dock a barge when conditions are ideal.  The test comes when everything you thought you knew comes up short, then the fact that you won’t do anything new in an emergency becomes evident.  How you handle an adverse turn of events comes from learning how to expect the unexpected and being prepared to deal with it.

One of the most important skills is to know is when to start over.  It’s “plan B”.

The saying; “Physics is a bitch” couldn’t be more accurate.  The behavior of the tow’s mass and inertia can be calculated and parsed to the nth degree.  But who really does that?  Well actually we do, when we check the current, wind, traffic, and our gut. Quoting a post in the Captain forum from a Captain to a new mate, “Son, never approach a dock faster than you’d want to hit it”.  The approach and landing is generally a controlled crash.  We’re talking inches per second.

Ebb current rounding Tremley Point and losing it in the turn brought this one to a sudden stop. It made one Hell of an “impression”.

Giving thought to how we should proceed involves planning for as many contingencies as we can think of.  Time on deck provides the means to acquire that judgement.  But watching someone having a bad day is not as indelible as having the bad day yourself.  That crystalline intensity isn’t there.

Every deckhand with some time under his belt utters the same monologue when the pilothouse is having a problem.  He knows exactly where the poor bastard went wrong and has the answer to all things “tugboat” until he himself is at the helm envisioning all too late what he should have done.  There isn’t a working boatman alive that can claim he has never had a reportable damage. You can’t be in this industry and not have had an incident.  It’s the nature of the job.  Incidents that don’t get you or anyone else killed or maimed serve as educational opportunities.  You (hopefully) never forget the “lesson learned”.

With luck and determination, a good number of candidates for the wheelhouse survive their “baptisms by fire” and turn out to be competent and capable boat-handlers.  Most recognize that their careers are ongoing educational seminars at “Tugboat U”.   The number of years one is on the job is not insurance against error.  Even with 30+ years at the wheel, errors occur.   They don’t happen as often, but they happen none the less.  Overestimating rudder power and underestimating the wind could turn a simple approach to an “all astern frantic” exercise.  With luck it becomes a footnote and lesson learned, catch it too late, disaster.

Allowing for error during training is one of the most difficult lines to walk in this business.  Every trainer has a different comfort level and each trainee is unique. Some are granted a bit more leash  while others are held a little more tightly until their skills improve and allow for more freedom from intervention. Overall, the aim is to expand the limits of one’s skill level when it comes to error management.  The only practical way to do that is to let the situation develop and address it.  If you haven’t been allowed to deal with a bad situation, you’ll never be able to defuse one.  It sounds like a “Catch 22″ but the many factors that have an effect on decision making can’t be listed in a curriculum.

The U.S. Navy has intensive and expensive training for damage-control and fire fighting.  They practice air combat maneuvers and test the mettle of their people in relatively controlled environments.  The intensity of having water up to your ass while you plug a hole in the hull or flames licking at your heels knocking down an engine room fire, or someone at your six with “missile lock”.  It’s about as real as it can get, but it’s still a training exercise.  The ship isn’t really sinking or afire and that missile isn’t really heading for your tailpipe.

On tugs, we have to create these training opportunities as we work.  We don’t have the luxury of the reset button.  The set-up and execution of specific maneuvers are conducted in the real world with little room for dramatic errors.   Some elements are frequently encountered during the hitch.  We see wind, current and traffic every day.  We deal with strange berth assignments that test our close quarter maneuvering skills daily.  We utilize assist boats not too differently than docking masters on large ships.  When an assist boat is used, the equation now includes another whole set of considerations.  Not the least of which would be keeping it in position safely and using it to its greatest advantage.  All of these skills are learned on the job, not in school.

It’s been mentioned that simulators would be useful in giving wheelhouse candidates a safer environment to experience their “Kobiyashi Maru Incident”.  I can agree to a point, the quality of simulators has improved dramatically in the last ten years but the reset button is still there.  It’s an expensive course of limited value in my opinion.  I can’t say that I would have a lot of  faith in a trainee telling me that he had the high score on the simulator as we are on approach to Hell’s Gate drawing 25′ at max flood, eastbound, meeting a westbound deep draft sailboat in mid-channel.  There’s a whole lot more at stake then a grade at that point.

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“I’m not your Dad, friend, pal, buddy or peer, I’m the Boss.  I don’t give a damn whether you like me or not, but you will respect my rules and carry out my orders. There isn’t anything I’d ask you to do that I haven’t done myself.  I’ll tell you the truth. I’ll never say anything behind your back that I wouldn’t say to your face.  You’re here to work.  I’m here to make sure the work gets done by the book and on time and to make sure we all get home safely and in one piece.”  Capt Bill Brucato

A man I worked with long ago taught me a valuable lesson in leadership, he believed that a boss should set the example and demonstrate with his actions and behavior what “doing it right ” means.  He didn’t worry about being a “good guy”, he worried about being a good captain.  Whether that would have endeared him to his crew was not his primary concern.  He knew that maintaining a high standard started with him. He was cordial and a gentleman, but he made it clear with his words and actions what he expected.

The times when a criticism or correction was required, he would take the crew member in question aside and “have the talk” privately, he wouldn’t embarrass the man publicly if it could be helped.  The man didn’t have to “lose face” in front of his crew mates and the lesson could be imparted without the drama.  If the talk failed to solve the problem, there was precious little room to argue with the decision for that man to move along.

It’s human nature to want to be liked, but being liked and being respected are two very different things when it comes to being the boss.  I suspect it’s easier on a ship to maintain a professional detachment from the crew, but on a tug and barge unit there isn’t any insulation from the crew for the captain to really be above the fray.  We only have seven crew members at best.

I’ve seen some hard-asses and some that try to be pals, but in the end both fail to garner the kind of co-operation needed for a really safe work environment.  We all know having an asshole aboard makes for a long hitch and I don’t think it serves the team to have a screamer in charge.  I think it reflects a lack of professionalism.  If the Boss is calm and collected, the professional demeanor of the crew is set from the top down.  The example is evident in everyone aboard.

If the boss is of the “do what I say, not what I do” school, he’ll surely fail to maintain order and organization on board.  I think it defeats innovation and morale.  Being “squared away” is more than boat-handling and general seamanship skills.

I only ask that the crew do their jobs to the best of their ability.  If they need help or guidance then I will give what I’ve got.  I’m not above getting down on deck to teach a new guy how to handle a line or set up the deck gear.  I’ll be happy to explain what I’m doing and why after the work is done.

I don’t take part in practical jokes.  I don’t want to know about the details of your love life.  I’m concerned with your approach to the work and getting it done safely and on time.  I’d appreciate a professional attitude.

Any questions?

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It’s exactly 18 years ago tonight as I write this that I took a swim without the benefit of a PFD, a witness, or any idea that it was imminent.  No, I wasn’t plowing through heavy seas and swept over the side.  I wasn’t sleepily standing at the rail, uh… relieving a biological need.  And I wasn’t trying to jump a distance that I should’ve reconsidered.  I was climbing down a ladder in the dark to walk up the dock and call home.

My boat (the Dragon Lady) was waiting orders in the old General Marine Shipyard, formerly the Jackson Shipyard in Mariner’s Harbor, Staten Island, NY.

It was just after the evening meal and the cell phone was not yet part of my standard equipment.  So up to the pay-phone I went.  I told the Chief I was going up and he was settled in watching TV as I climbed up and over the barge we were tied up alongside.  No one was in sight as I steadied the ladder and took the first three rungs quickly.  My world started spinning in a sick and twisted circle as the ladder collapsed under me and promptly sent me falling into the Kill Van Kull.  The four feet of clearance between the dock and the barge was enough for me to fall straight in and miss hitting my head on the dock by inches.  I went fairly deep, having dropped from about twelve feet or so ( the Russian judge posts a 9.5) and came straight up to the surface.  Lucky for me I was a fit 36 year-old at the time and it was high water slack.  I managed to keep my wits.  I was wearing a heavy coat and boots and  aware enough to quickly get a handhold on the first thing I was able to grab, a broken exposed bolt that once held a string-piece in place. This same bolt could’ve been the end of me had I made contact with it on the way down.

After a long few minutes I was able to pull myself up onto the dock.  As I sat and considered how close I came to meeting my maker, I spied the hole in the dock which the leg of the ladder had slipped into.  That ladder was set hours before and as the barge rose with the tide it shifted the ladder to within a few millimeters of the damaged deck plank.  My body weight was enough to send it the last bit and drop me on my way.  I stood and reset the ladder and took a very chilly walk back to the tug.  As I entered the galley to find the Chief still watching TV, his query upon seeing how “hydrated” I was, “What, is it raining?”.  A valid question but for the look that must have been on my face.  I told him how I just missed killing myself and elicited the requisite, somewhat sympathetic “Wow, that sucks”……

I am more than aware of how differently it might have turned out.  I wasn’t expected to be back in short order.  In fact if I didn’t come

back for an hour or so, it would have been assumed I stopped in the local pub across the street for a beer (in those days we could still grab a cold one when nothing was scheduled for a good bit of time).  If I had bumped my noggin on the way down, no-one would have thought to look for me for a good long time.  And time is not what you have when you’re in the water in December.

If I had been wearing a P.F.D., I would at least been on the surface and maybe been able to call for help after “coming to”,  hopefully  before I succumbed to hypothermia.  Or at least, my remains would have been easier to locate.

So, I know it’s a tired old song, but  crew members are lost over the side every year.  The winter temperatures allow no quarter and will sap the warmth and life from your core as sure as the sun will rise tomorrow.  Taking a moment to make certain the ladder or gangway you’ll be using is safely set will prevent an unexpected swim.  And wearing a P.F.D. will give you time to attempt a self rescue, or at least ensure that when you’re discovered missing, you’ll still be on the surface.

Lesson learned my friends.

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