There are precious few words dedicated to “Man Overboard” in the textbooks when it comes to tugs and barges underway. It’s certainly not a simple situation for a ship and there’s much more involved than simply stopping and turning around for a tug and tow. The list of variables is daunting and makes it difficult if not impossible to really quantify what procedures to follow for every situation. Of course the end result we are striving for is the recovery of the man overboard, but as it’s said; “the devil is in the details”.
The M.O.B. evolution is anything but a well defined practice when it comes to the inland and coast-wise tug/towboat industry. Numerous texts diagram the “Williamson Turn” as the means to reverse course and end up on a reciprocal heading to locate and rescue a lost crew member, but that won’t work unless you have enough sea-room to conduct such a maneuver. And added to that, tugs and towboats in the U.S. inland and coastal trade aren’t universally equipped with fast rescue craft or S.A.R.T. beacons for crew-members. The ability to respond effectively to M.O.B. while underway is dictated by location, load, and weather. It should be mentioned that just like ships at sea, no two scenarios will be alike and there isn’t any specific checklist you can follow that will take every situation into account.
M.O.B. is not usually an “at sea” occurrence for tugs and towboats. Most incidents occur while working in close proximity to shore or in tight quarters. Climbing ladders on and off the dock to the barge, crossing between scows in a tow, and while going from tug to barge. Sudden impacts while shifting, building a tow, slippery decks, the list goes on.
First, a few operational facts;
For the coastal tug, it’s usually a given that in heavy weather there is very little outside activity since the boat is buttoned up to maintain her watertight integrity. Stepping out on the upper deck is usually the extent of it so the Mate can take a look at the towline and make sure nothing is chafing or hung up.
At sea, the coastal tug is impeded executing a classic “Williamson Turn” or “Round Turn” given the fact that there is a barge 2000′ or so behind it. In deep water it would be an academic exercise in turning the whole thing around. The wire or hawser could safely drop to its maximum canternary and not be a huge deal. But, when you’re discussing the bulk of tug/towboat activities here on the East Coast, this just isn’t the case.
Shallow water, snag hazards, tripping hazards, all add up to a choice between performing a rescue, or a rescue and barge recovery in coastal waters.
Towboats underway, [with limited maneuvering room, huge tows, low horsepower, and/or strong currents,] are severely limited in their ability to stop or turn around to effect a recovery of a man overboard. Physics being what they are, the idea that we can just stop anytime and have the means to do so quickly is a pipedream. Some of these tows are longer and more broad than any ship afloat, they don’t just stop.
Most A.T.B.’s handle like a ship and need a good deal of room to slow down, turn, and maneuver. Breaking out for a rescue would be extremely dangerous for the tug and barge in any kind of sea. The tug isn’t designed to operate in a very heavy sea-state out of the notch or disengaged from the barge, the possibility of damaging the tug during breakout is a real possibility. Recovery of the tow would be futile and a foregone conclusion. The emergency hawser would be the only option and a lousy one at that.
Sea room and available deep water;
Offshore, rounding up the tow without cutting away can be done. I have practiced this maneuver successfully with a tow with the hawser shortened up, and out to the chains as well. It’s a dicey maneuver that requires keen attention to the whereabouts of the hawser itself and the man in the water (sweeping the man with the towline isn’t a good thing, a hawser tends to stay close to the surface) . You get one shot at lining things up with this maneuver. The ideal situation would be if there is enough sea-room; the chain is brought aboard and the bitter end of the hawser is unshackled and dropped to drag the bottom . The tug is then free to maneuver and recover the man and then collect the barge after the fact.
Doing this with a tow-wire would require the wire to be shortened somewhat to prevent snagging the bottom and making things even more difficult. Slipping the towline or cutting away and letting the tow drift (if there is sufficient sea-room) is a better short-term solution for recovering the victim, but it is not easy to do. It shouldn’t be necessary to mention that weather will add a significant issue to this situation, but I will. The weather almost never co-operates and time is always of the essence.
If dumped, recovering the tow-wire will not be a simple evolution. At this point it would be prudent to deploy the emergency hawser and drag the released wire along the bottom with the barge into port and recover the wire under saner conditions.
Slipping the wire takes a concerted effort and suitable complement of manpower to pull it off under the best of circumstances. Under normal circumstances it can’t just be spun off the drum, it is bolted down ya’ know.
I frequently refer to the issues surrounding the tug Valour as a serious culmination of errors that could not have been much worse. [I take issue with one of the critiques of the tug Valour's Captain, specifically; the failure to slip the tow and recover the man that fell overboard. This idea that its a "simple decision/procedure" chafes me a bit. Yes, slipping the tow wire may have been the answer, but to do that while so many other things were going wrong? His boat was listing badly, the Chief Mate was down, the Second Mate was useless.] As I read the report it’s apparent that the manpower available was severely limited after accounting for the men lost, injured, or clueless during the ordeal.
On the river; a push-tow down-bound with a strong current in a narrow channel. The tow isn’t going to stop for a good distance and the victim will be in the water longer than he’d like. What choice do you have at this point?
Moor, anchor, or ground the tow. Calling for help, accurately relaying the victim’s assumed entry point and description. Try to stop, launch a rescue boat if you have one. There aren’t a lot of options.
Setting the tow adrift is seldom an option because the real issue is; Will this put the remaining crew or others in harms way? A breakaway tow doesn’t give way to other vessels, bridges, wharves, or anything.
That said, what specifically can a tug or towboat crew do for a man overboard while underway?
The answer is in being pro-active before he goes overboard.
Not a year goes by that we don’t hear of a deckhand or tankerman going into the water and not being found in time, or for a long time. One of the biggest reasons for this failure is the lack of P.F.D. use among the deck gangs. I can’t understand why this should be the case. I’ve had too many occasions to point out to a careless crewman that the work vest is useless if it isn’t properly donned. Why bother wearing it if you aren’t going to put it “all the way” on? If you’re working outside the rail, you should be wearing a work vest. What part of hypothermia training didn’t you get? How well can anyone swim when they’re unconscious? By the way, what is more manly, breathing or sinking?
We all would like to think that our shipmates will do whatever it takes to save us from drowning , being lost at sea, or succumbing to hypothermia. But we have to acknowledge the truth and take responsibility to assist in our own rescue by wearing the safety equipment we all have, correctly.
If notice is taken quickly that someone has fallen overboard, actions taken to rescue the victim can have a good chance of succeeding. The realistic situation we’re likely to face is that someone has failed to report for the watch and we have to go looking to see if he overslept, and then not find him.
The recent story of the tug master who awoke and stepped out to relieve himself subsequently found himself off the boat and nobody knew he was gone. Lucky for him another boat managed to find and rescue the poor bastard after he had to tread water for an hour and ten minutes. He ended up in the water with no P.F.D. and just his pajamas to serve his modesty. Depending on his vessel’s average speed and the time he stepped out to the rail, that could have put him anywhere from 2 to 4 nautical miles away from his boat, alone and treading…..
During our M.O.B. drill yesterday I wanted to point out to our aspiring wheelhouse candidates as well as remind the old salts that the watch stander has to be mulling over emergency responses regularly and be alert to the possibility that an emergency can and will arise at any moment. Constantly updating plans as we move along our track-line to evaluate potential grounding zones, turning basins, hazards, and options. It’s not only the watchstander’s responsibility to employ a higher level of vigilance. Every member of the crew has to take things seriously when it comes to working outside the rail, out on the tow, or just walking aft to check the towline.
It doesn’t need to be a white knuckle affair to stand one’s watch, but if we take an example from aviators and employ their kind of preparedness, they “always remember gravity“, what goes up must come down. Aviators are always conscious of the fact that they need to be prepared to crash at any time. That doesn’t mean they’re shaking in their boots or nervously fingering a ripcord, they’re just ready for the eventuality and constantly considering of their options. So should we.
What one should take from this little rant is that M.O.B. doesn’t have a great prospect of seeing a successful rescue for any vessel without help. If nothing else, we all bear the burden of at least ensuring our rescuers have a better chance of recovering the remains and giving closure to our families.
While some may think this last statement is too harsh or maybe insensitive, I submit that however painful, the fact remains that this is our reality every day we’re at sea.