UK’s marine accident investigators recommended a review into emergency towage resources in the English Channel, but a national association insists there are enough commercial tugs available
British accident investigators called on the UK government in March to reconsider the need for an emergency towing provision in the English Channel, in particular in the Dover Strait. This followed an investigation into an accident that exposed the lack of towage resources in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.
UK’s Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) has recommended that there should be a review of emergency towage provision in Kent, in the UK south east, because of the high risk of ship collisions in the Dover Strait.
This resulted in a national debate in different media* and the British Tugowners Association (BTA) defended the vital role that commercial tugboat owners play in emergencies.
MAIB made this unusual recommendation because of the lack of local salvage assets it identified during an investigation into the collision of general cargo ship Saga Sky and the rock-carrying barge Stema Barge II during storm conditions on 20 November 2016.
Both vessels were damaged and crew needed emergency rescue by helicopter. There were a number of contributing factors to the accident and its outcome, such as bad weather that was pushing Saga Sky towards the barge.
MAIB investigators identified that the crew on Saga Sky ignored warnings by the UK Coastguard to lower anchors during the storm. Its anchors were not deployed until after the point at which a collision may have been prevented, MAIB said.
Once it became clear that Saga Sky was on collision course, there was no emergency towage vessel available to be dispatched to manoeuvre the ship to safety. Only a small harbour tug was available in Dover and this had too little power to deal with the emergency.
In response to this, MAIB said in its report: “Given the volume of traffic using the Dover Strait and the absence of local commercial salvage assets, a review would be appropriate.” This recommendation was issued to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) and it is thought it will be followed up.
There are dedicated emergency towage assets in the northern French ports of Calais and Dunkirk, covering requirements in the Dover Strait and English Channel, and the UK has emergency towage provision in Scotland covering the northern and western seas. This is provided by Ardent Global and the Marnavi-owned anchor handler Ievoli Black, which has a 139 tonnes of bollard pull and is stationed in Kirkwall, in the Orkney Islands.
Reacting to the MAIB recommendations, the BTA confirmed to Tug Technology & Business that UK-based operators could provide the right response for ship emergencies when and where they are required, including in the English Channel and Dover Strait. These provisions would be better positioned and more readily available than any government-backed emergency towage vessel (ETV), said BTA secretary Robert Merrylees.
“For the BTA, safety is paramount and its members are fully supportive of providing emergency tug coverage for vessels in distress or in need of assistance whenever they can,” he said. “Commercial operators do their very utmost in this provision.”
“Government-backed ETVs were sparsely spaced and invariably inappropriately positioned most of the time to promptly come to assist”
Commercial tugs operate in all the main UK ports and would be able to assist in ship emergencies whereas government-backed ETVs “were sparsely spaced and invariably inappropriately positioned most of the time to promptly come to assist,” said Mr Merrylees.
He explained that technical capabilities of commercial tugs mean they are ready to tackle maritime emergencies. “With the bollard pull, tonnage and capability of commercial tugs increasing as ship size rises, the capability of the harbour tug for emergency assistance has increased,” Mr Merrylees said.
He concluded that “whilst government-backed ETVs would, in an ideal world, be readily available, the cost and practicality of maintaining a fleet of them around the UK is very significant.”
For that reason, BTA and its members think commercial tugs are in a strong position to provide a more prompt emergency response than state-backed emergency response vessels in the UK.
Other contributing factors and recommendations
Other contributing factors to the Saga Sky-Stema Barge II accident were identified by MAIB including its discovery that an old Admiralty navigation chart had been used to determine the anchor position for Stema Barge II when the accident occurred. This led to the barge anchoring over the subsea Interconnector France-Angleterre 1 cross-Channel power lines and severing them.
In reaction to this, MAIB recommended that the United Kingdom Hydrographic Office and MCA “justify the need for regulatory powers which could be applied, where appropriate to ensure vessels comply with the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO) recommendations with respect to anchoring in the vicinity of submarine cables.” IHO recommends that authorities to set a minimum distance, nominally 0.25 nautical miles, from submarine cables within which ships should avoid anchoring or conducting other underwater activities.
MAIB recommended that the UK’s Marine Management Organisation (MMO) should improve its marine licence application process to clearly stipulate a requirement that the latest nautical publications are referred to in project submissions.
There were also lessons in the report for shipowners and managers in terms of providing guidance to ship masters for voyages and anchorage in adverse weather conditions. MAIB recommended to Saga Sky manager Anglo-Eastern Ship Management that it enhances shipboard procedures and vessel-specific guidance for captains that “masters can refer to in order to estimate the effect [that] forecast heavy weather conditions could have on their ships’ manoeuvrability.”
*Tug Technology & Business editor Martyn Wingrove was interviewed by BBC Radio Scotland on 3 April, where he explained the role of emergency towage vessels and the availability of commercial tugs. Use this link to listen to that interview: http://bit.ly/TTB_Editor
TTB editor comment
Commercial tugs can meet UK emergency towage needs, but only if these are near the main points of their operations and if they are available. There remain holes in the regional positioning and capabilities of commercial tugs, which were rightly highlighted by the Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB).
For example, MAIB found there was insufficient towage capabilities in the Dover Strait to provide adequate response to this emergency while, on the opposite side of the Channel, France has these provisions covering one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.
On a positive note, tug operators have increased the towage capabilities and increased diversity of harbour and escort tugs and these are regularly called upon for assisting ships in distress around the UK coast. With increasing power, these tugs have better capabilities to tow ships away from danger.
However, there are questions over their availability. One owner explained that its tugs were too busy with commercial operations to assist a ship in the southern North Sea in April and the tug that was deployed to assist in the Saga Sky-Stema Barge II accident was too underpowered to assist.
Therefore, there is need for a review of ETV provision in the English Channel and Dover Strait and that this should come under MCA to ensure that it is instantly available when required for a towage emergency.