Archive for the ‘Crew endurance’ 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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Almost eleven years before the Eklof tug “Scandia” and their barge the “North Cape” made their ill-fated appearance on Rhode Island’s Moonstone Beach, I was eastbound on the tug Emily S. during one of the coldest winters that I can remember with a loaded 25k barrel gasoline barge named the Richard K. en route from NY to Providence.

The weather was typical for the month of February with a stiff westerly blowing and a clear sky as we headed past Stratford Middle Ground and across Eastern Long Island Sound during the last few hours of my afternoon watch. We were strung out with about 1000′ of our tow wire and a 9″ circ. x 75′ shock-line connecting us to the barge. The tanker-man was riding the tug for this trip since the company’s newly acquired “western rivers” style barge had yet to get living quarters fabricated and approved. Our crew consisted of the Captain Ed Redden, myself as mate, Rick Thompson as deckhand, Engineer Mike McKeon, and our tanker-man house-guest one Mr. Joe Tribilowicz

When Ed came up to the wheelhouse to relieve me at 1800, the weather was threatening to get a bit sloppier. I made my turnover and went below.  I had my dinner and turned in to get some rest. I fell off to sleep feeling the boat riding ahead of a building stern swell.  I was comfortably dreaming a couple of hours later as we were approaching Plum Island buoy, when the wind and current began to interact in a most unpleasant way. The current was flooding toward the west-southwest and the wind had increased in velocity veering from out of the southwest blowing in direct opposition to the flood current.  This has the unwelcome effect in the bottleneck of the eastern sound of causing the seas to step up substantially toward the narrowing confines of Eastern Long Island Sound and The Race.

Ed made the decision to render more cable in order to allow for the surge that we were beginning to feel. Normally this would have had the desired effect of moderating the ride and giving the tow a chance to get in step with the tug, but not this time. It would have worked if the shock-line held, but of course if that was the case, there’d be no story.  A short time after Ed had rendered what he thought was a decent amount of additional wire, the shock-line parted and the barge was on its own in a 12-15′ following sea.

Tug and tow are riding “in step” when they meet the seas at the same time.

I felt the towline part as I lay in my bunk and was getting dressed when Rick came down to tell me what I already knew. There’s no mistaking when the towline let’s go, the engine’s pitch changes as the load is released and she starts to run without all that weight behind her and the quality of the ride changes for the worse. I made my way up to the wheelhouse and began the work of fixing the approximate position of where we lost the barge and reporting this info to the U.S.C.G. Group Long Island Sound as we attempted to find our lost charge.

The Captain had managed to recover the tow wire and what was left of the shock-line as I was trying to pick the barge out of a deteriorating radar picture. Things were getting too crazy. Without the tow to help stabilize the tug we were at the mercy of an increasingly steep and slightly confused sea.   Bringing the tug head up into the seas was not helping.  On an 85′ tug in these conditions even though we were secured for sea, things you’d never expect to move were flying everywhere and it was getting difficult to manage our situation when the Captain finally made the call to head for safe haven in New London, CT.

The fact that we lost the barge was a tough break (no pun intended). The attempts to find it in the building wind and seas were fruitless. The idea that 25k barrels of gasoline were floating around without a tug was really a serious situation for the entire eastern end of Long Island and Connecticut. No one was happy.

We  made it safely into New London Harbor and were allowed to put in at Fort Trumbull Coast Guard Station .  As we were approaching the dock we saw that a U.S.C.G. 91 footer had been dispatched to try and locate and track the barge. As we passed each other we heard one of their crew yell,”that boat’s coming in and we’re going out?”

Oh no, not a happy camper.  The ride they were in for was going to be an all-night roller coaster affair with no break until they were relieved by a larger unit or the weather moderated.

The Emily was a new-built just the year before and had a tow wire but not a proper towing machine, meaning it was not the kind that would render and recover wire as the strain reached a set point. The twin screw 1800 bhp of the Emily was more than adequate for her needs but she wasn’t very well suited to the task of recovering the barge in such conditions.  No amount of effort in the existing conditions would have warranted any further attempts, it was too dangerous for the crew.  There weren’t that many of us to start with and no one was on the barge to take a line or assist reconnecting the tow wire.

After we secured, I headed for the Duty Officer’s desk to compare notes, update, and convey our ill tidings to the Boss.  Needless to say it was a tough phone call to make or receive.  The Captain was busy with the authorities and the paperwork that always accompanies these things.

The time in the Coast Guard office was spent trying to come up with a plan to recover the barge.  We had the spare gear, we just needed to find the barge and be able to get someone aboard to clear the bridles of the old shock-line and shackle the new one in.  In due course a plan involving helicopters and tug crew was settled on.

My deckhand Rick Thompson  and I would fly out in a Coast Guard Rescue Helicopter over the barge come daylight and be lowered down to the deck with the necessary gear and take the tug’s line and reconnect the towline.  All we had to do was drop onto the slippery deck on a thin little thread of a wire.  I had never been in a helicopter much less dropped out of one, and I had no way of knowing until after the fact that Rick was scared to death of flying.  He never mentioned it until the whole affair was over, he said afterwards that even with that being the case he wasn’t letting me do it alone.

So, with daylight approaching and the winds moderating we set off in a CG van for Groton airfield while the tug got underway.   We dragged our new shock-line, shackle, and tagline into the aircraft and were suited up in Mustang suits and headsets.  I brought my camera, zoom lens and all, determined not to miss documenting this adventure.  We sat on the runway and waited as the pilot and crew prepared for takeoff, I had no idea how really noisy helicopters were.  You could barely hear yourself think much less converse without the headsets.  We taxied and then lifted off the tarmac and hovered a couple of meters off the ground for a few minutes.  I guess everything needed to warm up before we got too much altitude.  The crew chief was really upbeat and everywhere at once.  He checked everything twice, including me and Rick.

He asked if we were ok with going down on the wire and with a little more bravado than brains I said “Let’s f*****g do it”.  He tossed a big thumbs up at me and probably had a good laugh thinking about how big my eyes were going to be when I was being dropped out of the aircraft into the down-blast of the main rotor and toward a heaving deck.

We cruised at about 500′ and I could see the pilots console with every dial and button you could imagine.  The ride was noisier than I expected and a bit like a roller coaster.  I snapped as many photos as I could manage from my seat as we flew out towards Block Island Sound. The barge had managed to negotiate the Race by itself and into the Block Island Sound.  It was now Block Island’s turn to be worried, the prevailing wind and currents had put the “Great Salt Pond” squarely in the cross-hairs.

The “on-scene commander” was aboard the 91 footer we had passed on our way in, and was “in sight” of the barge calling the shots.  As we approached the scene, the helo commander’s voice came over the headset and said that on-scene command was concerned the conditions were too slick and we’d have to call off the intended deployment of men and material.  Another option was being discussed, but at that point, I wasn’t privy to it.

I felt the helo bank east and we were on our way to Otis Airfield on Cape Cod but not before we took a tour of a beached fishing boat along the south shore of the Cape.  We landed at Otis and were escorted to the galley on base.  The rec room nearby had a pool table and dartboard and plenty of hot coffee.  Until that trip I was a comfortable non-smoker having been successful at quitting the damn things about 2 years before.  It was odd that as I was walking past the cigarette machine that I reached for a couple of bills and selected my brand, opened the pack, and began to light one up. Rick took a moment to remind me that I didn’t need a cigarette, I remember clearly thinking that I earned it.  He and I shared a couple of smokes, a game of pool, and some idle conversation.

We were informed after being there a couple of hours or so that we were to be transported back to our boat, which was underway and had reacquired the tow without us.  Sonuvabitch, he caught the tow without us! The original idea was for the tug to rendezvous with the CG cutter and barge and after we were lowered to the deck the tug would re-attach and take us aboard, conditions permitting.  No one had even given thought to trying to recover the tow with so few men.  There were only three guys on the tug and one of them had to run the boat while the other two caught and connected the bridle.  This was so not the plan that was discussed.

We re-boarded the helo and went through the same preflight two-step as we got underway for Point Judith Coast Guard Station.  Just before the helo dropped our gear and us at Point Judith they took us on an overflight of the tug and tow allowing me to get some really great shots.  We landed and they waved us goodbye leaving us to drag everything onto a 35′ cutter and get underway for the Emily, which was just approaching the point eastbound.  The cutter took us to the Providence Towboat, Tug Reliance, just outside the Harbor of Refuge which ran us to the Emily where we boarded and settled back in.  I went to the pilothouse to relieve Ed who was as exhausted as I was.  We were all exhausted.

Ed would’ve been brought to task for not following the plan had his attempt failed and injured someone. But, the circumstances changed quicker than the plan could be modified, moving him to act.  The risk of injury with the tug being so shorthanded was no small consideration but the benefit gained from acting on changing circumstances and conditions saved a bad situation from getting worse.  It was a bit of good fortune that the opportunity presented itself to reacquire the tow and testament to the guts of the guys who did it.  The job got done, Ed deserved the credit for recognizing and acting on a serendipitous change of circumstance.  Rick and I were tweaked that we didn’t get to help, but it all worked out for the best.

The lesson learned brought home the point that a shockline is not always a smart addition to your towing gear.  If the shockline is too short, as it proved to be in this case, there’s no real point in putting one out.   The normal gear used these days is a large and heavy chain bridle attached to a large diameter wire pennant, permanently attached to the barge and a good length of wire set for the prevailing conditions.

“Wire to wire” with a proper length to start with would have satisfied the needs of the tow, even if it meant slowing down.  Risking a recovery with so few crew could’ve been a deadly situation but the man in charge was able to pick the right moment to take a shot at getting the barge under control and succeed.

The good folks of Block Island were breathing easier and all was right with the world. We made it into the Narragansett Bay East Passage and picked up the barge without further incident and made our delivery about 12 hours later than anticipated.  The many photos I took were lost when I thoughtlessly opened the back of the camera without rewinding the damn film.  I was so tired, I had completely forgotten that small technical part.

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At anchor, NY Upper Bay, Bay Ridge Anchorage

At anchor, NY Upper Bay, Bay Ridge Anchorage

You may notice that I post to another site “Master of Towing Vessels Assn.” with these articles. Though you’ll see some subtle differences editorially, essentially they are the same.

The responsibilities of the pilothouse watch stander by definition are to stay awake and alert. The number of tools at hand to facilitate a proper lookout and safe passage include compasses (magnetic and gyro), radar, DGPS, AIS, or a combination of all in a chart plotter, radios, cell phones, engine room monitors, and alarms. The pilothouse watch stander is tasked with the duties of piloting and navigating his vessel safely for the duration of his watch which can last anywhere from 4 to 8 hours at a stretch. In the towing industry it’s usually a 6-hour watch and it has been this way for decades.

The new Crew Endurance Management Systems that are being marched out are testament to the level of concern and struggle for solutions.
Now generally speaking I’m not interested in arguing against the C.E.M.S. idea, in fact I agree with much of it but I believe the “tugboat reality” is being ignored for the most part when it comes to this approach.

The four-part evaluation called for with the C.E.M. system addresses the basics regarding reducing noise levels, darkened sleeping quarters, minimizing extraneous noise, and a proper diet. The evaluation is by no means a cut and dried schedule of requirements, it’s more of a guide, subject to fine-tuning over time. It gets complicated enough that a “mature system” would make provisions to ask the operator to use less throttle to minimize shudder and vibration. Aww Jeez, are we going to sing Kumbaya now? For crying out loud it ain’t the Love Boat!
On a tugboat, these criteria are not easily met at the outset since the environmental factors and noise levels would be nearly inescapable. Sometimes you just need to “hook it up”.
The rooms can be darkened and the hours shifted, but the biggest catch comes when the vessel needs to complete its deck and engine maintenance items.
As it is, the C.E.M.S. schedule doesn’t really allow for the really noisy work to be accomplished since there is always someone trying to sleep. We don’t have cooks anymore (gourmet or otherwise), the deckhands try but it’s really a crap shoot.
A tugboat is usually too small to have a quiet zone. H.V.A.C. systems are generally common or zoned as little as possible. So cooking, smoking, and general odors are always present to one degree or another.
And to have a “coach” wandering around shushing everyone wouldn’t be very well received.

So, throwing caution to the wind and giving a nod to 3 of the key precepts of the C.E.M.S. pamphlet, I decided that my crew and I would give the altered watch schedule a try. Mainly to see whether we derive any clear benefit from a slightly longer sleep period once a day.
There were no major changes made aboard as far as noise reduction or room darkening or even diet modification. Most of the exterior maintenance was complete for the year, the rooms were already as dark as they were gonna get, the dietary picture was a foregone conclusion since we don’t have the luxury of a cook, so that’s it. Everyone had an opportunity to make his opinion known during and after the trial.

On crew change day we set up our watches based at 0600. (7 hours on, 5 off, 5 on, 7 off) We did not attempt to alter the Mate’s watch to avoid the dawning day since he wouldn’t see the sun rise this late in the year anyway. All watches were based at 0600.
The captain’s watch serves 0600-1300 then rests for 5 hours and then stands a 5 hour watch 1800 till 2300. The Mate’s watch has the 2300-0600 watch and is relieved at 0600 and off till 1300.
I asked the crew to conduct this experiment for one week to see if anyone had a good or bad reaction to the altered watch.
The end result showed that the Mate’s watch was being robbed of any benefit since they would not get any real rest on the short off watch. They reported not being able to fall asleep.
This would make the following long watch nearly insufferable in the last hour. Rather than more rest, they were getting less.
There isn’t any provision personnel-wise that can be made for a “nap” so soldiering on for the week was in order.
The term of the test is acknowledged as being a short time frame but I think the glaring issue has more to do with the fact that the Mate’s watch was getting less rest with a longer rest period. It was apparent within a couple of days that they just weren’t tired enough to get any meaningful rest on their short off watch following the evening meal. Dragging the experiment out any longer would have created a real fatigue issue.

Mr. Thomas A. Alegreti, the C.E.O. of the A.W.O., used a study conducted by the Texas Transportation Institute for the U.S. Department of Transportation to address the Subcommittee on the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Committee, regarding Transportation and Infrastructure. With it he addressed the congressional representatives in Washington, DC on September 16, 2008, in discussions related to the T/V Mel Oliver incident in New Orleans he quoted from the Texas study regarding the inland waterways of the United States as being “the safest and most environmentally friendly and economical form of freight transportation”. The statement also quoted the study to say that our industry achieved record lows for crew fatalities and tank barge spills. It stated that tank barge spills between 1994 and 2007 declined 99.5%. The compliance data states the inland fleet is 85% double hulled, well ahead of the O.P.A. 90 due date.

Once we look past the high profile idiots making the news, the rest of us are quietly plugging away at 99.5% efficiency. The struggle continues as we strive for 99.9%.

Originally I wrote this as a response to a letter I read in Workboat that stated the 6 and 6 rotation was deadly. I have never believed that to be so, I think calling 6 and 6 deadly is unwarranted. The commenter did not represent himself with facts, merely unsubstantiated opinion. That said, I’ve been standing 6 hours on and 6 hours off for 30 years and I don’t see anything getting better by dividing the day up any differently. It would be nice to have the right amount of crew and the right watch schedule, and the perfect corporate attitude to allow for the perfect work environment. But we all know that doesn’t exist on this side of Neverland.

The work needs to be done and someone will be disturbed. We’re moving in the right direction but we have to give a nod to reality. Some things will work, others won’t.
It remains to be seen how the C.E.M.S. situation will play out. It has many thoughtful and practical recommendations, but it’s not the panacea when it comes to tugboats. It’s a near certainty we’ll be required to implement some form or another, any progress would be better but there is no magic pill that will alleviate crew fatigue completely. The system’s cheerleaders notwithstanding, it doesn’t try to, and could not, address all the different scenarios one would encounter on a tugboat.
A tugboat is a noisy, dynamic and dangerous place to spend time and it requires a level of awareness that requires one to be sleep deprived from time to time.

You’re going to miss some sleep participating in drills, emergency call outs, and overtime events that have little concern for normal sleep patterns. Mealtimes will be rushed and sometimes missed. The choice of meals may not meet with healthy dietary guidelines and that’s a fact, we’re lucky if the meals get served on time.
Corporate bottom lines will become even more important with the arrival of the financial markets new “Ice Age”. And it appears that nothing will prevent the powers that be from continuing to heap regulations and procedures upon us while showing little concern for reality when it comes to meeting these mandates.
Family and financial stresses will always be with us especially since we are all watching our 401k’s eating its tail (thanks Wall Street).

Many can say that my experience with this idea was not primed for success from the start since I didn’t go through the evaluations, audits, and investigations addressing the main aspects of the C.E.M.S. design, but I don’t see it as being necessary or that complex an issue. When you boil it down its easy to see that the amount of energy expended will outweigh the end result when it comes to tugboats.

So right now I’ll just say that I’m not going to lose any sleep over it.

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