Archive for the ‘towing technology’ 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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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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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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I had the good fortune of traveling abroad just after the Thanksgiving Holiday to visit a place far, far away. Well not so far, only about 3,000 miles as the “Continental” crow flies.

The missus and I took a flight from Newark’s Liberty International and landed in Shannon, Ireland after a 6 ½ hour flight. Although a bit “jet-lagged”, my wife and I proceeded to engage in a perilous endeavor. I was driving on the wrong side of the road for the first time.

It wasn’t as daunting as I had imagined and with a couple of cups of airport coffee and a scone for good measure we set off to drive down into Cork County and settle in at our hotel in a village called Midleton.

Main Street Midleton, Co. Cork, Ireland.

Luckily, I had caught a bit of sleep on the plane and I was negotiating the roadways of the Emerald Isle without any real difficulty. The roundabouts were at first a challenge, but no more so than driving Rt. 95 on a weekend in Jersey. With the missus as my co-pilot we made the 3 hour trip to Midleton.  We only made a few minor navigational errors and managed to arrive safely.

Prior to leaving on our holiday I had contacted the Port Commisioner’s office in Cork City through their website with the hopes of having a look at the tugs working in the second largest natural harbor in the world and maybe chat with my counterparts and compare notes.  I received a reply from Captain Paul O’Regan inviting us to do just that.  We made arrangements to stop in the Customs House in Cork City on the Monday following our arrival and have a chat and coffee.  We met with Captain O’Regan and Captain Noel Fitzgerald of the VS Tug Gerry O’Sullivan.

Co. Cork Customs House

In this day and age of Homeland Security precautions, TWIC cards and red tape, both my wife and me were invited to join the crew of the VS Tug Gerry O’Sullivan for their next tow on Wednesday.  No ID cards, bloodwork or body cavity searches required.

A ship was due to arrive and discharge at the Conoco Phillips facility in Cobh Harbor (pronounced Cove) on the morning tide and we gladly accepted the invitation and kept in touch for the next day or so.

Commemorative statue of Annie Moore and her two brothers Phillip and Anthony on the wharf at the Cobh Heritage Center.

The Annie Moore story

On Wednesday morning we arrived at the Cobh Heritage center and parked behind the gates.  The master had yet to arrive and we were welcomed aboard and chatted with the Bos’n while we were awaiting the Captain’s arrival. Captain Fitzgerald showed up and gave us the “nickel tour”.  A coffee, some introductions and then underway.

The crew consisted of the Master Noel Fitzgerald, Chief Engineer Panos Karousos, Bos’n Killian O’Brien and their wheelhouse trainee Gerry Moran.

With 4,000 bhp, clean modern lines and tight quarters, the Gerry O’Sullivan is a Voith-Schneider twin drive tractor tug, she is also a “day boat”  .  The crew spreads themselves among the work vessels that are under the control of the port.  They could be assigned to any manner of work boat for their tours that might include drag operations to smooth the bottom, or maybe tend navigation buoys, to manning tugboats.  Shore-side work is also in their job description.  They are each a “Jack of all trades”.  Their tours last two weeks on and off, they are on call as opposed to living on the boat.  Trainees for the wheelhouse are on their own time until they are qualified and licensed to handle the boat.  Not too different from the way we did it in the past.  We call it “hamming”, or “ham and egging”.

The tow; To say it was impressive is an understatement, I’ve never experienced such a nimble boat.

(a VS tug in Antwerp, Demonstration This video is of a similar tug, there are some configuration differences but the maneuvering is the same.  The fun stuff starts at the 12m30sec mark ).

We flanked away from the wharf and quickly turned within a boat length, the stern no more than one or two meters from the wall. The Gerry O’Sullivan easily turned on a dime and steadied so quickly it could have been on a track.


The trip out to the sea buoy revealed that the buoy system is the opposite of the system in place here in the US .The IALA Region A System is the rule.

Roches Point Light

The G.O’s sea keeping quality wasn’t that much different from a conventional tug.  As we approached the harbor entrance the ride was, let’s say, a bit lively. The tug isn’t really suited to coastal towing but then again their work is primarily ship docking. It handled the 2-3 meter swells well enough, it wasn’t uncomfortable considering.

Tug Alex tethered for emergency arrest to the M/T Americas Spirit

As we met and escorted the ship from Roches Point Light, another tug was tethered to her stern to provide arresting capability in case of a steering casualty.  The harbor is large but there is a tight entrance channel that requires a dead-on approach.

The pilot kept her neatly on the ranges and he had little traffic to worry about, only a naval vessel that was outbound for sea that met us when we cleared the narrows.

The docking was going to be conducted during the last hour of the incoming tide and as we approached, the G.O. approached the starboard bow and put up her working line.  The method for assisting the ship with a tractor involves turning “stern to” the work.  That is, we approached the starboard bow with the stern of the tug.  This places the forward mounted drives in the best position for maneuvering during the job.

Putting up the ship line, note the messenger line and the main hawser in the "staple".

The line used for assist work is a heavy 9″ circ. samson braid hawser pennant attached to a smaller diameter but stronger synthetic main line on the drum.  The deck gang on the ship has to winch it aboard mechanically.  Once secured, we ride the ship until the pilot slows for the approach.

Of note is the way the tug will work alongside.  The pilot orders the G.O. to back the bow, the tug backs away quickly and while doing so a substantial amount of hawser is deployed to the length of about 200′.  This allows the tug to apply force without eating its own “dirty water” or better known as “quickwater”.

At first I thought the brake had failed until I realized the Bos’n was handling the controls.  Deploying and retrieving the slack is handled by the Bos’n who takes up station alongside the helmsman after the line is sent up to the ship.  Conventional tugs in the States don’t usually release that kind of slack when docking a ship.  We tend to stay snugged up.  Captain Fitzgerald explained that the added slack allows the tug to exert her force without overloading the line vertically, the longer lead gives the tug clean water to work in and ensures the line won’t let go from excessive downward force.  Smart.

It all happens very quickly, when the pilot asks the tug to back, the drives are reversed , the throttles are increased and the brake on the drum is released so slack can be powered out at the speed of the tug’s sternway.

I didn’t anticipate how fast our helmsman (Gerry) would back away from the ship.  With no lag time for clutches, (because there aren’t any)forward to astern happens in the blink of an eye.  The change of thrust overcomes its former motion quickly.  The Bos’n matches the speed of the winch with the tug’s motion and secures his brake as the throttles are reversed and sternway is reduced to “fetch” into the line.  Once set, power is applied and the boat can swing whichever way is required to apply the necessary force to oblige the pilot’s request.  When the pilot calls for “ahead easy” the tug closes its distance to the ship as the line is winched in as fast as it went out. In a flash we’re snugged up “stern-to” the ship and pushing her toward the berth.

It went as I expected, no fanfare, professional, boring.  Just the way we like it. Our trip back to the dock was bright and sunny.  We told tales and compared work.  We discussed licensing and training.  It seems tugboat men are the same all over, ribbing each other, tall tales and good humor.  The men of the G.O. were just as curious about how we worked in the States as I was with their operation.  A brilliant experience, I can’t thank the crew and Captains Fitzgerald and  O’Regan enough.

I know, a tugboat ride on my vacation, one of the few times I wanted to be on a boat on my time off.

I wrote this as a story about a fun day and some detail of how these men work a V.S. tug.  I didn’t intend nor do I wish to go into a deep analysis of how these boats work.  I was aboard for one job, I can’t possibly know or do justice to the skills these men possess.  I had a small glimpse of their professionalism, expertise, and good humor.  Enjoy the photos.

Cork Waterfront

A waterfront pub, Cork City.

The inner harbor, Cork City.

Control station

Chatting with the Bos'n Outbound Cobh Harbor

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The first of March underway in Massachusetts and Cape Cod Bays.  This is what A.T.B.’s are built for.  Oh yeah,” in like a lion” suits it perfectly…..enjoy.

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