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Archive for the ‘tug and barge’ Category

It’s been a few months and the weather conditions down here in the Gulf of Mexico continue to offer a diverse experience from one voyage to the next. Here’s what we had to deal with for a day and a half just before the Thanksgiving Holiday.  What you’re watching is what an ATB is designed to do, ride weather that would keep a conventional tug and barge hove to on a slow ahead engine or weather bound all together.   We don’t necessarily enjoy this kind of ride, but the fact the ATB tolerates this kind of weather and is still able to make a respectable amount of headway is testament to the effectiveness of the design.

 

The Nicole L. Reinauer heading for Tampa, Florida on a stormy day…. from Bill Brucato on Vimeo.

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I found myself going through the “library” aboard and rediscovered an article written earlier this year for Marinelink regarding a “quandary” for AT/B’s, as the phrase was coined.  I thought it was just so much bullshit when I first read it and I had to every intention to comment.  The comment piece fell by the wayside for a while but I’ve renewed my interest so here goes.

It’s clear to me the term “quandary” was meant to generate a response from the industry and perhaps create a bit of drama.  And even though it has taken me until now to comment, I’d like to add my view and I offer my opinion as Master of one of the aforementioned “quandaries”..

Captain Jeff Cowan, (whose experience regarding AT/B’s remains in question for me) pontificates on the ill-conceived and imminently dangerous existence of AT/B’s in place of ships in the Jones Act trade.  He has drawn parallels that make a “sour grapes” spin sound complimentary.

I read with a good deal of glee the direct and articulate (see what I did there?) response from Mr Bob Hill of Ocean Tug and Barge, and thank Marinelink for publishing Mr Hill’s comments in their entirety.

I believe with all due respect, that Captain Cowan has missed the boat on this one (pun intended).  I have been working on one of Mr. Hill’s AT/B’s since 2003 (see the page header).  We were in the New England trade for many years and this last spring joined our sister unit the AT/B Christian F. Reinauer in the Gulf of Mexico to trade between Louisiana and Florida.  I have no illusions of what these units can and cannot do.

So let me address Captain Cowan’s assertions here;

My boat normally carries a 7 man crew, we have room for 10.

As far as STCW requirements; we are all STCW certified since the charterer requires it.  And yes Cap, we operate more than 200 miles offshore.  It’s a nearly 420 nm long trip from SW Pass to the Dry Tortugas on a great circle route, twice as long if you try to stay within twenty miles of the coast.  The inshore route is held as an option, though rarely used.

We moor with 8 lines, more if necessary.  A two man deck crew generally has it done in 15-20 minutes.  There isn’t any port/facility we call on that requires more than eight mooring lines.  I have witnessed one of the large Crowley 750 class moor and they take an hour or so with a dozen or more lines.  I can’t state with any certainty that’s the norm or the exception.

My company has had a Safety Management System in place since the late 90’s

We are S.Q.E. rated through the ISM Code and ISO 9001 and have been since 2004

We have 3 service gen-sets and one emergency gen-set all 99Kw, whaddaya think this is?

Since we’re talking Jones Act Shipping we’re not dealing with ISPS

Yes I will acknowledge the crew size could be larger.  The requirement for a greater number of people on board will have to be mandated by the charterers since the USCG and US Congress are unable or unwilling to force the issue.

I don’t have any illusions as to why this issue garners the attention it does from the “upper level license” community.  The Jones Act tanker trade is being somewhat eclipsed by AT/B’s, but not completely.  So let’s just settle down..

Since my AT/B unit was assigned work in the Gulf of Mexico I’m seeing a lot of AT/B’s working in the Gulf and I do mean a lot.   I’m seeing state-of-the-art rigs trading in Tampa, Jacksonville Florida, New Orleans and Port Everglades.  Bouchard (conversions), Reinauer (design-built and converted units), new Crowley designs, and OSG behemoths all taking bigger bites of the coastal trade away from tankers in the 350+ bbl range.  Crowley just completed building 17 new AT/B’s at a total cost of $1 billion USD, that ain’t small change.  AT/B’s are and will continue to be the future, but the tanker won’t be disappearing any time soon.

It’s true that for the most part we burn less fuel, we have fewer crew members (something we didn’t have a big say in), and yet we’re getting charters from the big guys on a regular basis. (As a point of order here; the majors don’t put their eggs in risky basket if you catch my drift.)

That’s not to say we’re not getting tons of rules; in addition to the rules quoted by Mr. Hill being satisfied to just build an AT/B, we’re tasked with tons of procedural and operational (ahem) guidance from our charterers.

We’re being inundated with terms we were more or less oblivious to a decade ago.  SOLAS, ISGOTT, OCIMF, SIRE, ISM, SMS, all these acronyms are in our daily lexicon and we’re subject to the same standards as ships in many cases.

A Cat 1 SIRE (similar to a full blown colonoscopy) is an audit that is generally reserved for ships, my rig has had more than a few of them so far.  We’ve tried to explain to the auditors that we’re not a ship with precious little success.

Here’s a Sample SIRE Report, how’s that for a fun-filled afternoon?

Captain Cowan cites the delays associated with tug and barge operations and the added time and costs that come with it, again I call b*llsh*t.  We are chartered with a clear statement of expected speed we’ll average and delivery times we’ll make.  The customer is well aware of what they are buying, if it was unacceptable we wouldn’t be so busy.

We don’t sail into storm systems, the customer wants all his cargo, not just most of it. We take a beating like everyone else if we get caught but we’d rather not.  Everyone knows it comes with the territory.  Ask anyone who has sailed through a hurricane and I’m damn near certain they’ll tell you to a man they’d rather not do it again.

The Scandia/North Cape was a single skin barge lost in a storm nobody should have sailed into.

The Valdez (with a crew of 24 plus) was not a total cargo loss, a large volume of her cargo spilled in Prince William Sound, but certainly not all of it….everyone seems to think the ship went away after the grounding.  It kinda did, the ship was towed to California, repaired, renamed and placed in service again with a different name.

Do we need to mention the Costa Concordia?

Those of us who are running these rigs are not breaking any rules, we’re doing our jobs.  And we’re doing it with “lower level licenses” in many cases.  Now I’m not particularly fond of the term but I can accept that there has to be a distinction.

Tankers run aground and spill cargo just like barges.  A detail frequently overlooked in this kind of argument is that a total loss means everything ended up in the water (and it’s a rare occurrence), let’s coin the phrase correctly shall we?  Double bottom technology isn’t perfect, but it’s helping prevent bad things from becoming disastrous.

With the number of disasters in the news these days concerning ships breaking in half, catching fire, sinking, colliding, and grounding; there aren’t many stories where I see someone claiming how much safer ships are.   The fact is that any vessel that puts to sea must assume risk.  Weather, training limitations and sometimes dumb luck are involved to make or break a journey.  We like to believe dumb luck has little influence on the outcome but anyone who has piloted their way unscathed out of a zero-dark thirty fog-bank in heavy traffic knows better.

I doubt that the ship drivers are worried at all, it’s the writers of blogs and magazine articles needing something to write about.  Nothing like creating a tempest in a teapot for a little entertainment.

If we’re going to discuss things in a constructive manner let’s agree that there’s little room for half truths.  After all this isn’t Fox News is it?

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IMAG1694_stitch

A line tow ready to head upriver, his length overall is about 1,500 feet and maybe 120′ wide.

I have to admit I’m a bit of a tourist these days.  My latest assignment has my boat trading between New Orleans and Florida.  As I write this we’re waiting to get a loading berth in the NORCO terminal just above the Crescent City.

While I’ve been around tugs and tows my entire career I’ve never had the experience of seeing a Mississippi river tow built and then sailed by the massive towboats that navigate the lifeline of the mid-west.  It’s busy work and takes a lot of blood and sweat to put together.  It can take a day or two to build a “line tow” by small workhorse towboats that are in constant motion picking up, shifting and rafting up a fleet of 28 or more barges carrying anything from coal to grain to whatever.  The towboats that move the finished tow are huge and wide with a good amount of horsepower in the engine room and the pilothouse.

Listening to these boats receiving their marching orders is interesting, the numbers and types of barges vary from boxes to rakes and keeping track of where they are placed and how they are delivered is complex but well understood.  It reminds me of how my Dad used to get his orders moving railroad floats for the New York Central when I was a boy just riding along.  The numbers of each unit are conveyed in a boatman’s shorthand, concise and exact.

The volume of traffic here is amazing. Ships, sea-going and river tows are everywhere.  Huge cranes off-loading dry cargo, flotillas of barges are almost everywhere along the riverbank.  The anchorages are along the river and tightly packed.  Our anchorage here in Ama one of many.   We set our anchor within a few dozen yards of the unit ahead of us and settle back.  The river current is constant so we lay parallel with the bank.  It’s a bit unsettling to be this close to the guy ahead of us and the one behind us, but the anchor holds and it’s kinda cozy.

The radio chatter is flavored with a bit of a patois and it’s amusing to hear some of the exchanges between the pilots and operators of the boats working here.  Courteous and occasionally colorful these fellows use phrases that catch your attention.  In a conversation between a couple of units this morning the dialog went something like this;”I’m up-bound approaching the turn, what would you like?” If you could hold up there I’ll be around here shortly”, “No problem cap, I can do anything but disappear.”  You can be sure I’ll be using that one someday.

It’s not news to anyone that’s the least bit familiar with the western rivers that the “line tows” are massive floating collections of cargo larger and longer than any ship afloat.  To listen to these units making their way is a study in “cool and calm”.  When I encountered my first big guy, I was impressed  with the way he seemed to manage his charges so effortlessly.  I quickly recognized that these men were supremely gifted boat handlers and to underestimate them would be foolish.

For the time being, I’m going to enjoy the experience and absorb as much as I can from the mariners that work in this corner of the country.  These people have a skill set that rivals any you might find in the Northeast.

During my first voyage here one of our river pilots came aboard to relieve his colleague who had met us at the entrance to the river eight hours earlier.  As we shook hands and in a big voice he said “Cap, your day just got better”, better indeed.

More to come.

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My first voyage to the Mississippi River was a fine fair weather trip around the Florida Keys and across the Gulf of Mexico.  I shot a few pictures and learned a few things.  More on that later.  For now, some photos..

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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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