European tugboat owners have political, operational, commercial and technical challenges ahead
Tug owners in northern Europe are tackling challenges in a highly competitive market for harbour towage services that has driven operators to merge into larger organisations that can manoeuvre their fleets to meet demand.
On the political side, European tug owners face the potential threat to commercial operations from global shipping alliances and uncertainty over the UK’s planned exit from the European Union (EU).
Technical and operational challenges include ensuring available tugs have the right credentials and seafarers for the work they are tasked to deliver. This has changed across the region with the introduction of ultra-large container ships to more ports and the opening of new multimodal terminals, such as London Gateway in the UK, in recent years.
These issues were discussed at the British Tugowners Association conference, which was held in April near Liverpool, UK. At this event, tug owners discussed the potential threat to commercial harbour towage from container shipping alliances. These were a driving force in the joint venture Kotug Smit Towage in the last three years.
Consolidation in shipping lines is also a key factor in this year’s decision by the venture’s owners, Boskalis and Kotug International, to sell this to rival Boluda group. If this sale is completed, Boluda will have large towage interests in ports around the Iberia Peninsula, France, the Benelux countries and the UK.
European Tugowners Association (ETA) secretary general Anna Maria Darmanin explained how container shipping lines secured exemption in 2009 to the EU’s Lisbon Treaty rules that prohibit forming consortia that restrict competition. This block exemption enables shipowners to form consortia for EU economic progress and to share shipping capacity to operate more effectively.
Ms Darmanin said this block exemption was reviewed in 2014 and is again under review this year. She said the European Commission intends to complete this review before the EU elections on 23-26 May. The ETA will lobby for guidelines to prevent shipping consortia from jointly negotiating and block-purchasing towage services.
“It is a ticking time bomb in our sector”
However, tug owners worry that more shipping groups will form consortia and jointly negotiate harbour and terminal marine services in the future. Kotug Smit Towage chief executive Rene Raaijmakers thinks if container lines’ alliances are approved for another five years, other shipping sectors, such as car carriers, will seek similar EU rule exemptions. “It is a ticking time bomb in our sector,” he said at the BTA conference. “If block exemption is continued then alliances will dictate terms. There will be implications and independent tug owners will fail,” he said.
BTA chairman Nick Dorman said owners want assurances that there would be no block negotiations as these “will drive towage down to the lowest common denominator”, adding that more clarity on “what alliances will be allowed to do” needs to come from the EU.
Mr Dorman highlighted the uncertainty of Brexit on European towage and UK tug owners. Anxiety among owners remains despite April’s decision to delay Brexit again, this time until the end of October. Brexit will affect tug operators on either side of the channel in different ways. Serco Marine, which provides towage for the Royal Navy, would be affected if Brexit prevented it recruiting well-trained seafarers. Serco Marine marine contracts manager Duncan Foster expressed worries about access to talent to replace an ageing workforce.
Svitzer and Kotug Smit Towage, being European-based and with considerable UK operations, were worried about the free flow of trade, tugs and seafarers between the EU and UK. Tug operators said at the BTA event they wanted swift answers on what to expect from, and after, Brexit.
Training and safety remain key operational challenges for European tug owners. Mr Dorman, who is also a director of Targe Towing, said towage companies had made progress in improving safety through training. However, there are too many line breakages during towing and not enough master-captain-pilot communications.
“Safety goes to the top,” he said. “We should get chief executives to the coal-face [on board tugs] to see what needs to be changed. They could see the issues that seafarers face.” Chief executives would learn a lot about safety practices from spending a day with tug crews, he added.
Training should include more simulator time to enable tug masters to practice their skills, said Maritime & Coastguard Agency assistant director of seafarer services and chief examiner Ajit Jacob.
“Training needs to be fit for purpose and progressive”
“Simulator training works, but it needs more sensory effects to improve training,” he said. Mr Jacob thinks training syllabuses need to be modernised to include the latest technology and marine experience. “Training needs to be fit for purpose and progressive. Modern syllabuses need to include simulator training that is made more accurate by including sensory effects.”
Training should also prepare tug seafarers for more autonomous operations. “Seafarers’ skillsets should make them ready for autonomous vessels,” said Mr Jacob.
He also warned of potential consequences of Brexit, such as issues with sharing maritime safety information and work permits for UK seafarers.
“We may not be able to share information on incidents with the European Maritime Safety Authority and we would not want any disruption in working arrangements,” he said. “We want to ensure UK seafarers will be accepted in the EU and there would be no changes for European seafarers on UK vessels.”
Mr Dorman said communications between tug masters, ship captains, pilots and port operators are vital for safety. “These interfaces need to be right,” he said.
Alfons Håkans HSEQ manager Kimmo Lehto also highlighted the importance of communications. “Pilot-master co-operation is vital.” He said the ETA was creating a training program to demonstrate reasons for pilot-captain-master communications. It will include communications with mooring teams, instructions for planning and communicating with all parties.
“Common systems in Europe will mean that advice is similar on communications between masters, pilots and captains,” he said.
Alfons Håkans is expanding its tug fleet with icebreaking capabilities for Baltic winter operations. It ordered two icebreaking escort tugs from Sanmar Shipyards for ship assistance and ice management in the northern Baltic Sea and Gulf of Bothnia.
These will be built to Robert Allan TundRA 3200 design for year-round operations and to Bureau Veritas class.
Sanmar is building a series of tugs for Svitzer’s operations in the Middle East and in Q4 2018 supplied a new tug for Svitzer Europe’s UK operations. Svitzer Meridian was christened at Greenwich, London, in March 2019.
Svitzer Meridian was built to support ships using the Grain LNG terminal on the River Medway, London Gateway container terminal and other terminals on the Thames. It was built to a TRAktor-Z 2500 SX design as one of Sanmar’s Delicay class of tugs with 70 tonnes of bollard pull. Sanmar adapted this tug to operate at the LNG terminal. This includes emergency response, fire-fighting systems and other safety features, such as positive pressurisation of the accommodation, engineroom and bridge to prevent gaseous fumes from entering these spaces.