Archive for January, 2009

Line handling is a skill that takes a lot of practice.  It’s an age old tradition for a new deckhand to receive instruction on the fantail from the Captain, Mate, or senior deckhand in the finer points of line throwing and “lettin’er go”.  It doesn’t look all that  different now than it did more than 100 years ago as you might imagine.  It’s a skill that requires more finesse than strength and it brings out the competitive side of everyone when it comes time to show your stuff.  It isn’t as easy as the veterans make it look, just ask the new guy.

These captures are from a video shot by Mate Gardner Bilodeau.

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When it comes to mariner education and license upgrades, I don’t make a habit of promoting one product or another since they all pretty much do what they need to do albeit for a stiff price at times.  I came across a license prep website a few years back and took a liking to it right away, it was free. The ability to quiz yourself on any subject and have a running total on your progress was just what I needed for some exam prep.  Did I mention free?  I wish to add I have no affiliation with the authors of the site.  I do however applaud the product, it has matured nicely over time.  There is software for sale but the free online practice exams are very  handy.

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Go ahead, plot this.  Multiple targets in close quarters, what is the safest course?

“Near miss”

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

A near miss is an unplanned event that did not result in injury, illness, or damage – but had the potential to do so. Only a fortunate break in the chain of events prevented an injury, fatality or damage. Although human error is commonly an initiating event, a faulty process or system invariably permits or compounds the harm, and should be the focus of improvement. Other familiar terms for these events is a “close call”, or in the case of moving objects, “near collision”. Indeed, the term “near collision” is less contradictory in nature than “near miss”, since a “near miss” would be a hit that almost missed (a glancing blow) versus a miss that almost hit.

You don’t need to be a “Monty Python” fan to see how absurd it could get if you had to submit a report every time someone got too close for comfort while underway.  The “near miss” is a different animal than one might think.  Although the idea is not well received by our community because it seems too broad, the point of this practice is to assist in identifying the flaws that reside within the best-laid plans.  It has to be something you can put your finger on as the reason it almost failed but didn’t because that one small thing saved the day.

One of the comments I received on my article regarding using sea stories as training aids was linked to a site promoting its Root Cause Software and protocol.   This site posed the question “Can tugboat accidents be prevented?”  If you’re referring to procedures and professional guidelines for critical operations, I would answer that yes its possible to reduce the number of accidents but I would quickly add it’s not in our power to always address, identify, or remove one of the largest “unknowns” in our workplace, the recreational boater.

If you’re talking about rough water transits or high wind restrictions, these issues can be easily and clearly addressed.  If you’re focused on keeping a proper lookout during certain evolutions putting a barge on or off a towline, yes.  Avoiding the speeding  pleasure boat off the port bow that just now decided to cross to starboard under your bow at a distance of 25 feet no, not without a trigger happy gun crew.

What’s the difference between a near miss and close call as described by the ISM Code?  Realistically, they are one and the same .   The deciding factor in documenting a true “near miss situation” is that there’s an identifiable thing that broke the chain of events that nearly led to a real disaster.

The following incident is by definition a “close call” and a “near miss”;


I was pushing a loaded oil barge northbound on the Hudson River drawing 16′ and making about 8 knots over the bottom with a fair current approaching the  Port Ewen anchorage just south of Roundout Creek, Kingston NY.  A few southbound units were in the Kingston reach north of Kingston Point and rather than meet them there, I’d decided to take it easy and wait as best I could below the point.

A small yawl was luffing along northbound on the western side of the river and was more or less out of the way.  I warned the south bound traffic by radio of his proximity to the channel edge and figured he would stay clear until all the larger traffic had cleared.  Rather than exercise that bit of good judgment he decided to tack and catch what little breeze there was to cross to the eastern side of the river RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME and my 8 knot, 400′ push tow.  I nearly rattled the fillings out of my teeth as I slammed the throttles to the stops ordering full astern and sounding the danger signal until I thought I’d run out of compressed air.  It was going to be an exercise in futility since I was bearing down on this yawl with little chance of stopping or having a way out.


The Tug Leigh Ann Reinauer

I dispatched the deckhand forward with a radio and instructions to keep track of any survivors that may surface.  I could only see the top of his mast as he reached the middle of the bow, I just knew he was going to be raked under by the chain bridles.  The deckhand was yelling for him to get out of the way or jump or anything, and the guy replies “I can’t”.   He then turned around, reached for and pulled the rope starter on his little 2 cylinder kicker which started on the first pull.  He cranked the throttle in time to clear with moments to spare.

By now the mate and I are staring in disbelief wondering how we missed him.  I asked the deckhand how in Hell did he get away and he told us how the kicker started with one pull.  I had to ask if he got the name of the motor figuring I’d buy stock in the company that just saved this idiot’s life.  In just 15 seconds, this guy went from being a happily oblivious sailor to a sailor nearly committed to oblivion.

[“Only a fortunate break in the chain of events prevented an injury, fatality or damage.”] The outboard motor started on the first pull.

One small factor changed the entire situation from a likely disaster to a very close call/near miss.  That one small thing is what we can identify from our perspective, as the reason he escaped unharmed.  We can deduce the root cause as his lack of situational awareness,  either from being on the phone, or his dog jumped over the side since his leash wasn’t secured, or that he fell asleep.  In hindsight that list could be endless and in any event out of our control.

Limiting Risk with Education

Towing a barge on a full sea hawser is a common practice that frequently  passes unrecognized by the recreational boating public.  A boating season doesn’t go by without some *P.D.B. crossing a towline or getting hit by a tow since they didn’t understand the relationship between the tug and barge. Ask any tugboatman how often he’s worried about boats nearby crossing the “wire” and the answer will likely be, “always”.  Ask his opinion as to what can be done to prevent it and it’s almost certain his reply would be to insist that boater education and licensing be required for the entire boating community.  A higher level of awareness comes with the proper education and an enforced responsibility for your own actions  The chain of failure is broken when the small boat is aware of the relationship ahead and turns away from the towline hopefully in time.  Yes I know, its the same old tune.

Years ago I was asked if I could offer some input on a Comprehensive Tug Operations Manual that could be a reference for all the operational considerations applying to the profession.  My answer was “you don’t have enough paper“.  It’s impossible to proscribe all of the many bad things that might happen with a  “book answer” much less quantify everything that can or can’t be done.

The “book” answer for the commercial community is maintain the proper and lawful lookout conditions and safe speed while underway to avoid small recreational boat encounters. The problem with this becomes apparent when you add the recreational boater to the mix X 100.  The photo of my radar screen at the top of this article shows at least 60 targets of various concern, fully half of them are a threat to my vessel.  Ask “How do I avoid this?”, and the short answer is “you can’t”.  If you need to move the boat from one place to another this is what you must deal with.

It doesn’t matter if it’s on a “Long Island Sound Sunday” or approaching Ambrose Entrance in a late afternoon haze, or my favorite, “deep draft” sailboats in Hell Gate or the Cape Cod Canal.  We all have stories of maneuvering through a swarm of small boats on a busy summer weekend.  The documentation of these events as “near misses” would be a Sisyphean task that would do little more than convince my employer that given all our exposures to peril, perhaps selling shoes might have been the better career choice after all.

We regularly pilot our vessels through crowded and congested waters giving due regard to the ignorant as well as the informed boaters we meet. The ability to do this is an art as much as a science and the fact that we must be a bit psychic to survive this exercise easily makes this one of the most stressful things that a watch officer can face.  The only way you can get through it is to successfully predict where Joe Weekender is headed.

In fairness there are a few of these operators that understand where they are and what we’re dealing with, their efforts to accommodate our needs are appreciated but the vast majority are still ignorant of the limitations of commercial traffic in close quarters and the issues we face even after some very high profile accidents involving pleasure boats.

The professional community knows that when you’re talking about New York Harbor after the fireworks on the Fourth of July, no large commercial vessel  will be getting underway if they can help it, at least and not until after the small boat traffic has had the chance to run for home and out of the way.

Sailing school pro ends up under the bow of an anchored barge in the Hudson River.

Sailing school “pro” ends up under the bow of an anchored barge in the Hudson River.

A common problem that is simple to identify is the amateur in the $50,000 boat with a $500.00 reel trying to catch a 25 cent fish while anchored in mid channel.  On a nice day we can anticipate that he will be there and hope the channel allows some wiggle room or that he’s listening to his VHF radio and we can convince him in time to pick a slightly less obstructive fishing spot.  It’s almost never that easy.

The State of Alabama (according to the NTSB) is the only state in the union that requires a license to operate a pleasure boat.  A few other states comply with some measure of permits and education for minors.  I’m not alone in thinking that their efforts are  incomplete.  The boating public frequently forgets their lives are on the line every time they set sail.  If they were required a formal license with all the responsibility that comes with it  the “blissful oblivion factor” may diminish.

There aren’t that many boating safety courses  available to the general public that set any real standard for knowledge or skill.  Generally, it’s show up with a pulse and you’ll get the certificate.   Why do you need a license to drive a car but no such credential is necessary for a boat? You have brakes and the ability to stop in a car, boats the last time I checked are not so equipped.  And unless you’re prone to driving through flood waters, cars don’t sink out from under you.  Okay, I see your eyes glazing over again….

Near misses are studied as a means to mitigate the “dangerous but avoidable” situations we encounter or identify the flaw in an established plan in order to find the weakest link in the chain of failure and break it before things go wrong. I think breaking the “under-educated recreational boater link ” would easily improve the marine community for all.

Our desire to eliminate error in our day to day operations is an important practice which continues.  We are well aware that we won’t get an error free environment but we can strive for the last few percentage points anyway.  A more focused and complete curriculum for licensing pleasure boat owner/operators should be a primary issue for the entire country and would lead to a safer marine community all around.  One more point of failure we could remove.  How many pleasure boat accidents point to a poorly educated operator as the root cause?  Try this one.

The Karen E., August 9th 1981.

My skin still crawls every time I read this story as it could just as easily been me and my crew on Long Island Sound that night.

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It’s a regular occurrence, we take the novices aboard and get them oriented. We show them the pointy end (the bow), the port side rail, the starboard side rail, and then the not so pointy end (the fantail) all the while extolling the virtues of remaining within those boundaries, no swimming without authorization if you please. We teach them the basic chores and how we want them done, and then try to imbue them with our knowledge and experience so that they too will eventually be equipped to think and act as a full share member of the team. We are keenly aware that until they’ve got some time under their belts we’ll need to coddle, cajole, and harangue some of these hopefuls in order to keep them from killing themselves or anyone else on our watch. The entire crew is involved.

One of the many questions asked by newcomers to the trade is; “What do I need to know right out of the gate?”. In an effort to clear up the mystery, here’s the first few things a new hire should commit to memory as he or she steps aboard the tug (or any work boat) for the first time.

Welcome aboard.


The Tug Richard K , shifting at Standard Tank in Bayonne NJ photo by Capt J. Brucato 1979

The first thing you need to know is that working on a tugboat is a real job, you can’t fake the proficiency you’ll need to survive. The environment is dangerous and demanding. Learning on the job is traditional and training new hires is a common practice for us, we expect it to take some timple.

We prefer that you have no experience at all, it’s easier for us if you have no bad habits that we’ll need to overcome. If you’ve been fortunate enough to graduate from an academy please keep in mind we don’t need to hear how smart you are, you’ll need to demonstrate your intelligence and learn what we teach you.

Please know that we won’t ask you to do anything that we ourselves haven’t done. We know how to get you up to speed and you’ll either learn to follow orders, or end up “back on the beach”. After that the next thing you’ll learn may well be when to say, “Ma’am, do you want fries with that?”. If you want the job, pay attention.

No one expects you (as a novice) to know what is expected when you step aboard a boat to work for the first time. If you’re lucky enough to have scored a job with a tugboat outfit, there are many things to be learned but, before you’ve stepped aboard the one thing you should have already mastered is your manners.

Report to the captain and show him your paperwork. Although the atmosphere on a tugboat is less formal than what you would find sailing “deep sea”, you would do well to remember that the Captain is not your buddy, pal, father, friend, or peer, he’s the Boss, be prepared to show him respect.

Listen carefully to what you’re told and find your room and bunk. Introduce yourself to your new shipmates.

At this point it’s worth mentioning that you should pay particular attention to practicing good hygiene habits. The tight living quarters on a tug are tough enough, we don’t need to put up with your funk. Flush and wipe the bowl if your aim is bad. Wipe out the sink, no one wants to see globs of your toothpaste floating around the drain or splattered on the mirror. Make sure you always clean up after yourself, learn how to change a toilet tissue roll, your Mama ain’t here.

Keep yourself and your work area clean and orderly, and before you handle any food whether you’re making a sandwich or starting dinner, wash your hands.

Find out what your responsibilities are in an emergency, check the Station Bill for your duty assignment during drills and emergency response. Learn and remember the location of all the emergency equipment on the boat, you’ll be expected to know how everything works in short order. Pay attention during the drills. You’ll be shown what everything is and what it’s called, your task is to memorize it so you understand what you’re being told.

You’ll be assigned a watch. Get out of bed when you’re called for the watch, don’t try to catch “just 5 more minutes”, we’re not your personal snooze alarm. You’re expected to show up a few minutes or so before you’re due on watch. Napping on watch is forbidden.You should be properly dressed, fed, sufficiently caffeinated, and ready to work.

Showing up prepared to work “properly equipped” means a deckhand should have a work knife in his pocket or on his belt and be wearing a good pair of work boots and gloves, sneakers don’t really cut it. During your first tour you should keep a list of the items you’ll need to fill out your gear for the next hitch. Like a better set of rain gear, boots, glove liners, etc.

If you don’t understand something, ask. Common sense (while not so common) is second only to showing respect for your shipmates and vessel. That includes pulling your weight and respecting the privacy of others. Like I said, good manners.


“Crossing the table”, towing a ship out of the graving dock in Bayonne Shipyard

You are here to work, put the cell phone, Ipod, and laptop away until you are off watch. You aren’t here if you’re on the phone or whatever.

Practice, practice, practice your line-handling. The only way to become proficient is to take a lot of throws at bitts and cleats. Every deckhand breaks in the same way by throwing lines on the fantail. The exercise isn’t all that different from a hundred years ago, it’s a rite of passage for all of us. We’ve all done it and I can assure you it’s not about strength, it’s about technique and finesse. “It’s in the wrist”.

These are just a few of the things you’ll be expected to do once you step aboard. Remember, there are no stupid questions except for the one you didn’t ask.

You only get one chance at making a good first impression and if you show us you’re ready and willing to learn, we’ll be more than happy to teach you everything we know.

By the same token, if for one minute we get the idea you’re trying to blow smoke up our ass or just trying to get away with the least you can do, you’re done. Then we’ll find someone else who’d like to earn $45,000.00 per year + benefits to start, with no experience required. Comprende?

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Since long before the days of hand held radios and modern twin screw tugs, the deckhand has been responsible for the “first and last twenty feet” of the job.  This means that he was relied upon to give direction to the tug using a small police whistle or use hand signals to safely guide the operator away from or into the berth since visibility was almost always impaired by the tow.
This critical skill  frequently required an extended period of time on deck and it didn’t matter how cold, wet, wind-blown, or frozen the man was.  He stayed on deck until he was released by a toot on the peanut whistle or a wave from the wheelhouse.
However, the deckhand who faithfully and admirably stood by his station and performed his duties could be somewhat less than noble. On occasion he could be found cursing a blue streak for all he’s worth if things were taking too long in his opinion, especially if he was freezing or soaked to the skin.
“That dock-shy sonofabitch, I could have had this thing to the dock last week”, or one of my favorites, “My little sister could do a better job getting this thing to the dock!”. No one can hold a candle to a sailor once he’s hit his stride and cursing a blue streak, it’s a thing of beauty.
There was precious little generosity granted when things were taking a little longer than normal.  The wheelhouse was tasked with getting their charge to the dock safely and the deckhand needed to ensure that would happen.  So if the conditions were a little more difficult than usual, the level of “bitchin'” was sure to rise.  The epithets were hurled like a monkey’s fist on a heaving line away from and out of earshot of the wheelhouse.  It was somewhat cathartic and made a difficult task a little less painful, but no matter the circumstances the deckhand was there until it was done.
There wasn’t any (acceptable) vocabulary to relay one’s discontent to the wheelhouse since a whistle or hand signal was all that was used.  The job had to get done and if you weren’t properly dressed you could consider it a lesson for next time. We all learned to be keenly aware of “docking showers” since we’ve all suffered through that torrential downpour that occurs a mere 20 feet from the dock when there is no way in Hell you could leave the deck to get your rain gear.  You tough it out and hope that the engine room is warm enough to dry you boots for the next watch.

In any case I hold the belief that it’s a deckhand’s God-given right to bitch on deck with one huge caveat; don’t let the wheelhouse hear it, ever. The idea that one might flash a signal at the wheelhouse other than what was required was grounds for a quick trip to the dock, adding one’s name to the bottom of the hiring list at the Union hall, and then maybe extracting that size 12 from one’s bottom end.

It behooves me to admit that I too was guilty of this behavior. When I was decking, I had occasion to stand alone in 20-degree weather with a 15-knot breeze off the dock for over 45 minutes one fine winter’s day.   The old Rollins dock in Bayonne, NJ was falling down with exposed steel and splintered pilings, it wasn’t pretty and even less so when you had to land at the berth “in the blind”.  The captain made multiple attempts to land under my direction.   I gave him clear and proper whistle signals for what I knew was needed, and he was “blind” except for me. But over and again, he would back away from the berth just as I was close enough to get a line out and finally end my misery.  And so, like  many others before me I conjured all the foul thoughts and language I could muster and spewed that venom until the job was done.  I had little sympathy for his predicament.  I had safely guided him in such situations so many times before without a problem that his reluctance to let the barge get close enough was maddening.  When at last we were moored, I came back aboard nearly frostbitten on my nose, feet, and hands.  I spent an hour trying to warm up all the while cursing the man as my extremities thawed slowly in close proximity to the galley oil stove.

Some of the most creative and descriptive derogatory terms I’ve ever heard were from a damp, slightly chilled and weary tanker-man as he and I waited for the Mate to get us close enough to the dock to get a line out.  I stood witness as he revealed his uncanny knack for tearing an approach down to its parts and passing his judgment on the wheelman’s lack of talent.  Who knew a bargeman could wield such knowledge and expertise? Of course, it’s easy to criticize when you’re not at the wheel, or even a wheelhouse candidate. One of my favorite retorts was to tell the “resident docking master” that I’d be happy to relay his advice to the man at the wheel, or if he’d prefer, he could do it himself.  That offer was never accepted.
Commiseration is such a perfect word.  Barge captains, tanker-men and deckhands all share the misery of getting to the dock as Mother Nature rains down, blows, sleets, and snows upon them.  It’s a perfect environment of shared discomfort, everyone is equally miserable.  The scene is common throughout the industry, in any language, and any corner of the world.  The wheelhouse always takes too long to get it done if you ask the man out in the weather.

Docking the derrick "Century" in Newtown Creek winter 1985-86

Docking the derrick "Century" in Newtown Creek winter 1985-86 photo by bbrucato

The perspective changes, as it must, once you’re the man at the wheel.   You know it’s likely the deckhand is cursing your lack of skill, style of dress, and even your taste in women.  It’s entirely possible he’s calling your parent’s marital status into question as well.   But as long as he’s turned and facing the dock when he does it, we can allow him his misery and let him vent.  We did it ourselves not so long ago.  We all remember our time on deck and we’d like to think that we’ll do a better job of keeping everyone happy and get things done quickly and safely now that  it’s our turn at the wheel.  But sometimes it just doesn’t work out that way.  Either way, it isn’t about keeping everyone happy. It’s about doing the job safely without hurting anybody or anything.

So, it’ll take as long as it takes, feel free to bitch away boys, just let me know when you’ve got a line out.

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The Elise Ann Connors, a bad day.

The difference between a sea story and a fairy tale is said to be that a fairy tale always starts with “Once upon a time”, and a sea story always begins with  “No really, this is no s**t”.  It’s no secret that fishermen are known to exaggerate just a bit when talking about the one that got away, the tugboatman is somewhat different in that although the story sounds too impossible to be true, in many cases it’s as true as a carpenter’s square.  

The urge to tell your story is an ancient impulse.  Our ancestors painted cave walls and tribal shamans spoke parables by firelight.  Most of these stories were not told merely to amaze, but to share the knowledge and wisdom needed to survive day to day.  The fact that  they were entertaining was a fringe benefit.  The lessons contained within the content of the story pointed to actions and reactions as they led to a conclusion, either successful or fatal, and there was always “the moral of the story” attached.  This can be said to exist  today as root cause analysisand fodder for “lessons learned”.

Storytelling on a tugboat serves as a valuable teaching aid to pilothouse hopefuls and veteran boat handlers have a wealth of stories regarding close calls and incidents to relate.  It’s a useful exercise considering these tales since it shows either how the event was survived in spite of the gravity of the predicament, or how and why it came to an ugly end.   We use these stories to reinforce the lesson and to drive home a point when the issue may not be as clear-cut as we’d like.  Teaching a guy how to approach a berth with certain prevailing circumstances is a dry exercise, color it with the “dark and stormy night” and it takes on meaning, especially if the next time the berth is approached, it’s dark and stormy.  Telling the tale of how Old Joe Tug messed up his approach and took out a pipeline  and walkway with the bow of the barge gives the advice a little more weight,  action/reaction.

Whenever Mother Nature, human nature, inertia, and great mass are combined, things are going to happen.  (Physics are a bitch.) That doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t try to minimize equipment failure or operator error with well thought out maintenance plans or procedures,  it’s just that the odds are inescapable.  The more you do it, the more exposure you have.  And it’s not a matter of if it’ll happen, it’s when,  and you can be certain it will happen.

photographer unknown

photographer unknown

You can’t become a boatman unless you’ve dented a little steel or made a few splinters.  The sea stories serve as a teaching aid and by relating our experiences we can analyze the events leading up to the moment things went wrong and identify the “tell” in the future.  What follows after the dust has settled is the sea story.

Once you get a boatman talking about his “history”, the conversation gets  somewhat long-winded,  heavily laced with blue language, and descriptions that’ll seldom be politically correct.  It makes for a very entertaining and educational evening.  Some of my most vivid memories of my Dad and his friends are the backyard parties and the stories that would come out as the refreshments were consumed.  It wasn’t so much they were trying to top each other’s stories, but the more they told, the better they got.  It wasn’t until I had a few stories of my own to tell  that I realized they weren’t  really exaggerating all that much, the facts alone were amazing enough.  You couldn’t make this stuff up.

In the wake of a recent incident a fellow I work with became quite depressed. He had his first notable incident and  felt as though the event had marked him. He owned up to the error in judgment he made in trying something that was well above his pay grade and its subsequent failure.  The interviews and discussions after the fact had him at a loss.  This of course was our cue to cheer him up.  We related enough stories about things we did or survived that his issue quickly dimmed in comparison.  I think  afterwards he felt somewhat relieved but at the same time perhaps a little chagrined because his story wasn’t nearly as hairy as the ones we told.

In the general scheme of things it’s easy to understand that even seemingly mundane events  can be extremely expensive.   Some outfits recognize the reality of “Tow Biz” and will absorb these incidents as a cost of doing business but it’s not realistic to expect frequent damages to be tolerated if a trend seems to be forming.   A wheelhouse trainee has a very small number of reportable events in the bank when he starts steering, his mentor can mitigate some things by catching bad situations before they develop but the trainee is not always the perpetrator, it could be any of us.    The most skilled among us have plenty of stories to tell when it comes to mistakes, big and small.  You can’t claim to be a boat-handler who’s never had a damage, we know it’s not possible.  Tagging the side of a ship, shattering a dock stringer, crushing a railing along with properly denting a barge or hitting the wheel on some “unknown” underwater obstruction, and of course,  the classic “Bell ringer”* to name a few.   And if by chance you get two or more tugboat men together in a relaxed (ahem) social environment, the stories will raise the hair on the back of your neck, unless of course you have a story or two of your own.  In the natural course of events we hold these truths to be self evident, Shit happens.

The Poling #9  with her starboard bridge wing wiped off, mid 1980's

The Poling #9 with her starboard bridge wing wiped off, mid 1980's, photo by bbrucato

*[ A ” Bell Ringer” refers to when the tug makes a contact so hard it causes its own bell to ring from the impact.  Generally attributed to poor timing of the throttle. Usually there is  a time delay (4 to 8 seconds) that needs to clear before the engines can be reversed, mis-time it and one may not be able to slow or stop the boat in time, this is customarily followed by a red-faced apology to all concerned.

Every one of us has  a “bell ringer” story or two.  It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about the wheelhouse or the engine room, everyone has a story to tell as Chief Engineer Bob Mattesson does here in a fine piece of writing from a tugboat engineer’s perspective . It illustrates error and redemption in a great story.]

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