• Sunday, February 18, 2018

Common-sense safety tips for tugs...By John Lewis, FNI, CRSP Seafire Training

By BCShippingNews 05 December 2016
From fire and evacuation to safety when under way, Lewis reminds us to be careful out there...

Tug or towboats are unusual; they have the power of larger vessels, yet are “boats.” They are heavy, usually steel, and very stable — “stiff” — and rock violently at times.

Much may be written of towing; length of line, lost lines, broken lines and the dangers of girding (girting). However, I am not a tugboat guy and my experiences of towing mostly concern small craft, towing and being towed.

Photo above: Safety training needs to include the practice of getting crew out of confined spaces. (Photo courtesy Seafire Training).

So, if I am not experienced with towboats, what is there to discuss? I have worked on and around towboats when in service and when in dry dock for service or repair. I have noticed some things which struck me as worth remembering; not all points are unique to tugboats but all are relevant. These brief observations may be addressed under:

  • Fires and evacuation;
  • Confined spaces;
  • Safety when under way; and
  • Emergency station bills.


Fire drills, properly performed, should identify and address issues that will be problematic during a real incident. I have noticed that people frequently underestimate the time required to evacuate a space, especially berths and engine rooms. I tested this by putting smoke machines into spaces and having the crew escape. Despite knowing what was to happen, and knowing the way out, they were usually working blind before they reached the exit. “It all happened so fast,” was the usual comment.

Yet, while things were rapidly becoming hectic inside, it usually took longer for the skipper to notice the smoke from the outside. If you wait until the wheelhouse person sees the smoke, it may be too late.

Finally, many crew were unaware of where and how to activate fixed fire extinguishing systems; and often did not know how to close off ventilation and fuel for the space.

Conclusions: practise getting out of spaces in darkness and/or smoke. Practise raising the alarm. Practise scanning all parts of the vessel, all the time. Know where and how to activate fire extinguishing systems.

Confined spaces

Because tugboats are relatively small, we often forget that they do contain “confined spaces” — as opposed to the merely confined areas below decks. Mostly, such spaces as fuel, water and ballast tanks are entered only during dry dock. “Grey areas” include lazarettes and steering gear spaces. Hazards are real — people have died when septic tanks have malfunctioned — but risks are generally low. However, simply getting someone out of a space is more difficult than one might think. One training exercise I use is to get a “casualty” from a cofferdam tank to the wharf. It became a multi-stage event; bottom of tank to midway; midday to entrance (inside steering gear room); steering gear room to aft deck; aft deck to float; float to wharf.

Conclusion: Practise casualty removal from different spaces onboard. You do not need a lot of special equipment, but you do need to practise. (For most cases, a 4:1 tackle, harness, slings and a backboard will suffice — provided you have a hauling point. Casualty removal does require practice, but competency comes quickly.)

Safety on passage

Usually, we focus on lines under tension and use of winches, but what issues should we address when making way? Amazingly enough, crew members are lost overboard when going on deck during passage (for a smoke or other reason — see tugboat Regent, March 5, 2009, when the Master fell overboard and treaded water for 70 minutes before rescue). Those bulwarks are low and the vessel can rock suddenly. The vessel’s doors and hatches are closed to maintain watertight integrity, so who will notice when someone goes over?

A crew member is missing: what do you do? If towing, the ability to turn or stop may be greatly limited, depending on water depth, proximity of land and traffic. If the crew member is not wearing a PFD, the chances of recovery are lessened. Our waters are cold. A “simple” MOB manoeuvre may not be easily executed with a tugboat, despite its own manoeuvrability. Dropping the tow may be necessary and all this takes time.

Conclusions: Know where all crew members are at all times, and don’t go on deck without telling another crew member. Wear PFDs when on deck — and wear the PFD properly, fully fastened. Practise MOB manoeuvres and assess how they might be done in different circumstances and conditions. Practise recovering a member from the water; on some tugs the freeboard and the rubber fenders impede access.

Emergency station bills

One of the most disconcerting things I have noticed, especially in large companies, is the Emergency Station Bill or Muster List. Often a perfectly good set of actions will be copied from a larger vessel and posted for, say, a tug with a three-member crew — Skipper, Engineer and Deckhand/Cook. Actions are outlined for every emergency, and duties for each position. Except, what do you do when one of the members is missing or incapacitated? What if the Skipper is MOB, as happened on the Regent?

Conclusions: Review your emergency stations. Test them for usability at sea, alongside. Test them with one person missing, then two. See what emergency actions are doable with only two on board, or one. Then place equipment where it can best be accessed in an emergency, not just where it “seemed okay.”

I trust the foregoing comments may be of help and may promote some fresh approaches to on board safety on tugboats.

John Lewis is a safety and risk management consultant. He has taught marine firefighting for land-based firefighters to many departments in Canada, Ireland and the U.S. and is a Master Mariner with a chemical tanker background.