Discussions at the British Tugowners Association conference highlighted five key issues operators face in the coming 12 months
Discussions at the British Tugowners Association conference highlight five key issues operators face in the coming 12 months
My travels last week took me to Formby, near Liverpool, UK, for the British Tugowners Association (BTA) annual conference, where discussions turned to the biggest challenges operators need to overcome. Being the only journalist in attendance was not only a great honour, it offered key insights into the issues of greatest concern to operators.
Not surprisingly, Brexit was top of the pile by nautical miles, particularly the uncertainty around whether it will happen and what the specific impacts to UK towage will be. Anxiety among owners remains despite last week’s decision to delay Brexit again, this time until Halloween.
Whether it turns out to be a trick or treat for the industry, Brexit is cerrtain to affect tug operators on either side of the channel in very different ways. Serco Marine, which provides towage for the Military of Defence, employs British-trained seafarers and expressed worry about access to talent. Svitzer and Kotug Smit Towage, being European-based and with considerable UK operations, were worried about the free flow of trade and tugs between the EU and UK.
Uncertainty is set to continue at least beyond April due to the UK Parliament’s failure to agree on an exit deal. No operator wants that scenario and delegates said they wanted swift answers as to what to expect.
Another political issue tug owner executives said kept them awake at night is the pressure shipping alliances place on tug contracting. These convoluted conversations involve lobbying by the European Tugowners Association with the EU commission and EU politicians over the risk that container shipping companies could use alliances to dictate terminal tug terms.
To cut a long argument short, shipowners have an exemption to the EU’s rules on alliances and antitrust rules, which should not include joint-negotiation of marine services. But, tug owners said they fear that strengthening shipping alliances could overturn those protections.
With European elections coming in May, there was an urgency among tug owners to extend these block exemptions for another five years.
Tug owners said they will face more pressure on going green over the next year, with IMO’s Sulphur Cap 2020 seen as just the tip of the future environmental regulations iceberg .
Tugs operating in harbours and terminals are in the public eye and often in the firing line of public debate on the subject of maritime emissions.
Investment by tug owners in hybrid propulsion, wholesale use of low-sulphur diesel and cleaner engines are going some way to mitigating negative opinions. But, there remains little incentive to spend more on lowering carbon or eliminating nitrogen oxide emissions in a tough market driven by shipping companies driving down rates.
Improving safety practices remains a challenge for owners, with attendees at the BTA conference worried about changing onshore and onboard cultures. They reported too many line breakages during towing and not enough master-captain-pilot communications.
The meeting concluded that safety issues should be reviewed by companies’ C-suites and that chief executives could learn a lot about good safety processes from spending a day with tug crews.
A maritime safety culture charter is due to be rolled out during London International Shipping Week, in September, which will set the course for future improvements. With luck, this will instil better safety practices for ship towing and harbour operations.
Autonomy and digitalisation
The growing creep of autonomous operations and digitalisation in maritime is a double-edged sword, according to tug owners. On the positive side, greater adoption of sensor-based equipment monitoring should lead to improvements in machinery design and maintenance. Plus, there could be employment opportunities as tugs are viewed as ideal candidates for demonstrating remote control and semi-autonomous operations.
However, digitalisation also makes tug owners vulnerable to cyber threats. Automation linked with digitalisation could lead to reductions in ship crews and difficulties in cooperating with assisting tugs. Fears that greater levels of ship autonomy and autopiloting may ultimately replace tugs altogether were also voiced.
Overall, there was plenty to turn tug owners’ hair grey that came out of the meeting. Political issues will be top of the pile in the coming months, but underlying trends in recruitment, environmental regulations, safety culture and digital technology will challenge tug owners at least until next year’s BTA annual meeting and conference.