Not too long ago, British Tugowners Association (BTA) chairman Nick Dorman recommended that shipping company executives spend a day with a tug crew in order to gain a better understanding of the safety issues these seafarers face.
Although I am not yet part of any C-suite or on the board of any major shipping companies (there's still time), I decided to take Nick's advice and spent a day out on a towage and berthing job on a tug on the Thames Estuary, not far from London central.
With the help of the welcoming people at Svitzer’s facilities in Gravesend, UK, I had the chance to follow the activities of a tugboat crew for a day, on 1 May.
I watched as highly experienced and well-trained seafarers on the 2003-built, azimuthing tractor tug Svitzer Brunel towed a 2015-built Grimaldi roro and container carrying vessel and berthed it at a dock near Tilbury, Essex.
The experience certainly gave me a greater understanding of the safety risks and challenges the master, chief engineer and senior officer encounter on a regular basis. Each of them demonstrated how ready they were to react swiftly to any situation they encountered, including mission-critical interactions with the crew of the ship they were assisting.
Apparently, seafarers on assisted ships do not always follow tug crew advice on how to transfer a heaving line from the vessel to the tug, where deck hands tie the heaving line to the towing line, which is then transferred back to the ship.
It is one of Svitzer’s main safety messages to all shipowners: crews should use a specifically recommended and colour coded weight on each heaving line to ensure each is safely transferred from the ship to the deck of the tug.
Not doing so can put seafarers on the tug’s deck in danger of a serious accident, and, I was told, tug crews worldwide face these dangers daily.
Using a weight that's too heavy when you are flinging a line down to the tug's crew is like throwing a padlock off a five-story building at a person below.
Throwing a heaving line without any weight on it means the tug needs to stay in the controlled position just metres from the ship’s bow for longer than necessary, increasing the risk of a collision.
"It was an exhilarating experience and demonstrated the skills that tug crews need"
During my day out, I watched as the master expertly controlled Svitzer Brunel not more than a few metres from the bulbous bow of Grimaldi’s roro Grande Cotonou before towing it to its Tilbury berth, with the assistance of 2003-built tug Svitzer Bootle positioned to the ship's aft.
Following the tow, 60-tonne bollard pull Svitzer Brunel manoeuvred around the assisted ship to gently push the roro to its berth. It was an exhilarating experience and demonstrated critical skills that tug crews need.
On this particular assist, there were good communications between the masters on Svitzer Brunel, Svitzer Bootle and the pilot on 71,543-gt Grande Cotonou, which ensured the tow and docking went smoothly. But, this is not always the case in ports worldwide, and lack of proper communications was highlighted as a notable safety issue during April’s BTA conference in Liverpool, UK.
Another safety issue crews face is slips, trips and falls. And one solution advocated by Svitzer is having standardised deck coverings that reduce the risk and severity of injuries if there is a fall. Keeping a tidy deck, such as the one I saw on Svitzer Brunel, will also reduce the risk.
Spending a day with a tug crew definitely gave me a wider understanding of the intricacy of operations onboard tugs and the safety challenges these seafarers face. Finding that understanding is not rocket science, it is simply a matter of direct experience, and shipping executives would equally come away with a better understanding by engaging in the same type of experience I did.
To put it succinctly, if I were in charge at a big shipping company, I would make a day with a tug crew a mandatory part of the job description for executives working in my organisation.