ATB Preparedness?

Here is a provoking topic to all.

Since ATB’s are a huge portion of the towing industry, and growing by leaps and bounds;

How are the towing connections being made?

Is your ATB ready to tow upon breakout?

Do you have a pick up line to stream? Are you connected to an intermediate hawser/wire as soon as you leave the dock?

Is your emergency hawser on the tug, or the barge?

Do you have UV protection (or chafe protection) on the exposed hawser?

How is your emergency hawser connected to the tug? Can it be released in extremis?

Does your company have a ‘plan’ or guideline to follow? Or is it left up to the captain to decide?

Is there a need to have USCG regulations for these issues?

Should there be uniformity nationwide? Is this necessary?

Are YOU safe on an ATB when out of the notch at sea in heavy weather? Should there be an emergency lower helm station (as opposed to being up on the top of a 50’ pendulum) so the operator isn’t being thrown around getting injured?

Is the crew going to be able to hook up a previously unconnected pennant in heavy seas? After several years, what crew member will have the requisite experience to do this from afar, while the operator is 50’ away up in a upper wheelhouse while getting thrashed manuvering the tug to get on the wire?

We have all seen the ‘neat’, impressive pics of the back deck awash. Is it reasonable to expect to be able to hook up tow back there when conditions are the worst?

Your opinions, experience, and comments please!

The wide variety of ATB designs would not allow for a generic procedure for emergency towing.
However, I can answer for the ATB I presently serve on.
I’ll attempt to answer your questions and fill in some blanks.

[B]How are the towing connections being made?

Is your ATB ready to tow upon breakout?

Do you have a pick up line to stream? Are you connected to an intermediate hawser/wire as soon as you leave the dock?

Is your emergency hawser on the tug, or the barge? [/B]

Generally, we are ready to tow at any given time. However, geographic location is the controlling factor.
Breaking out to tow is an open water issue, the routes we find ourselves transiting may or may not have the sea-room to breakout and tow.
The emergency hawser is stored on the tug’s fantail, there is no stern station on the O1 deck.
The hawser is not always shackled up, the pickup line can be streamed. Upon embarking on a long open water transit, the emerg hawser, towing strap and retrieval line would be set and shackled.
Nothing more than pulling the pins and backing away need be done in the case of an emergency. The barge’s umbilical would be sacrificed if necessary without issue.
Their would be no need for anyone on the fantail should emergency breakout become necessary.

Should it become necessary “in extremis” to release the tow, the towing strap can be severed with the swipe of an axe.

Additionally, this is a “hold and wait for help” scenario. We would do what’s necessary to hang on to the barge, but making way in heavy weather would be problematic. We would do what is practicable, practical and safe.
The company policy is a general outline giving the Master the overall authority to do what’s necessary. We have 3 different kinds of ATB’s in the fleet, the emergency towing setups are similar, but not identical.
[B]Is there a need to have USCG regulations for these issues?

Should there be uniformity nationwide? Is this necessary?[/B]

The USCG has no expertise in this area. They should be bringing out T/V inspection regs soon, I doubt they’ll be earth shattering.
Uniformity is a pipe-dream. There are too many different configurations to impose one standard on anything. Procedures for emergency preparedness should focus on having the gear necessary to facilitate an emergency tow given the kind of work and geographic area where the vessel is working. There’s not a whole lot of need for a 1,200’ hawser on a riverbound ATB. Leave the means with which this is approached, up to the master.
[B]“Are YOU safe on an ATB when out of the notch at sea in heavy weather?”[/B]
According to the ABS stability letter my vessel carries, yes. Will I be comfortable, no.

[B]Should there be an emergency lower helm station (as opposed to being up on the top of a 50’ pendulum) so the operator isn’t being thrown around getting injured?[/B]
Yes, but there isn’t any "legal requirement " for it to be installed. It would be at the discretion of the owner.
[B]Is the crew going to be able to hook up a previously unconnected pennant in heavy seas? After several years, what crew member will have the requisite experience to do this from afar, while the operator is 50’ away up in a upper wheelhouse while getting thrashed manuvering the tug to get on the wire?
The setup would not wait for heavy seas to develop. It’s foolish and unprofessional to wait until the last minute to hook up emergency gear. As I mentioned before, an extended open water transit would see the emerg hawser set dockside prior to sail.
Their would be more than one handheld radio being used when and if the situation demanded an emergency deployment. Mainly for the head count and status of the gear as it goes over the side.
[B]We have all seen the ‘neat’, impressive pics of the back deck awash. Is it reasonable to expect to be able to hook up tow back there when conditions are the worst?
Decks awash is nothing new in tugboating. I’ve been up to my waist in water recovering a barge that parted its shockline a few times. Not every tug is blessed with a dry fantail. PFDs and a good handhold. The deck is awash due to the fact the barge is controlling how the tug rides. The tug will be much “livelier” once its out of the notch. Setting hawser with a vantage point 50’ above would be a daunting task and is generally avoided with prior planning…
The issue with the passing of time dulling the skills of the deck gang, or the inability to train (realistically) for the eventuality of a breakout is an issue we’ll be facing due to the attrition of the older conventional towing masters that are now in command of the new ATB setups.
The emergency breakout is a tabletop drill, you can only do so much up to the actual pulling the clips on the emergency wire.
Further, the manufacturer of the connecting system recommends against breaking out in heavy seas. The system can fail hydraulically, pneumatically and electrically and still be locked in. I wouldn’t breakout unless I had a complete and catastrophic failure of the system. This would mean that the “helmuts” have shattered and the tug is at risk of being holed.
The nature of your question is general for the most part. If I can provide a more detailed answer, drop me a line. Like I said, this is what I do, I’d be interested to hear the procedures used by others.

The question is general in nature because I am looking for info from all ATB crews, not specifically one point of view. I do this for a living too!

The idea is to provoke comments from all over to raise awareness within the industry.

Not all companies have your office’ attitude, or ‘leave it up to the crews to decipher’! To be honest, most companies mandate the connection at all times! Often insurance companies mandate what is required.

Just how is someone supposed to ‘swipe the strap with an axe’ and NOT go on the fantail? Idea, mechanical releasing hooks, used all over in the oil patch.

Your tug may have a stability letter stating it will survive, but will YOU? Remember the space shuttle was certified as safe. Just because there is a government issued paper does NOT mean it is either practical or useful! Carefully read your stability letter. How easy is it to follow on your vessel? Can you honestly sail with only one centerline tank slack, the rest being either full or empty? How often does that happen? THAT is how useful the stability letter is! The boat may be safe but is it both useful and humanly possible to occupy the WH in heavy weather?

Any more thoughts? I know there must be some other ATB operators out there!

I too have an interest in hearing the thoughts of others, primarily those who run ATB’s for the same reason anyone would. Comparing notes is a useful exercise and can only make things better all around.
I’m about as confident in MY vessel’s preparedness being appropriate as I’ll get. I don’t for one minute think it’s perfect…
I’m aware that some outfits don’t back up their people with the equipment and information they need, I’m certain it will bite them on the ass in short order.
So, which outfits mandate a connection be maintained at all times?
What insurance carriers command the tug stay connected in all circumstances?

If you wish to debate the veracity or usefulness of the stability letter I can’t help you. I’ve read and believe I [I]understand[/I] mine.

I never said going on the fantail was out of the question, just mentioning the fact that people work wet decks all the time, we’re not in a perfect world where things always work as planned.
The need to use the axe would be an extreme example of things going bad. A hook similar to those used in the GOM could be a good suggestion, but the configuration of the deck and the ability to trigger the hook also requires someone to get up close and personal with the equipment.

As far as the stability of the tug out of the notch, I would have few choices should a breakout be necessary. The lessons learned from the tug Valour are not forgotten. Her casualty investigation’s final report is a real eye opener when it comes to stability awareness.
The unit I work on is designed with a breakout in mind. It’s not the best of all choices in any event, but one that has been considered by the designers and classification societies. I’m certain it would be a nasty situation.

Maybe some of the west coast guys who’ve actually broke out in weather could chime in?
How many units have had to break out, and under what conditions?
This would be the question; How did the situation evolve into an “emergency breakout”?

I look forward to reading comments from the crews running ATB’s.

You mention the Valour. That skipper [I][B]thought he knew[/B][/I] what his stability letter both said AND meant.

Here is a sample stability letter phrase that [I]may[/I] look like yours:

[B][U]“Tanks:[/U] [/B] No more than one centerline tank or port and starboard tank pair of the following liquid types may be partially filled at one time: potable water, fuel oil, lube oil, and hydraulic oil. Any cross connections between port and starboard tanks shall be kept closed at all times while underway.”

Careful reading of this paragraph tells me that my tug (which has 4 centerline tanks) and 4 port and starboard pairs is in almost constant violation of the stability letter. How about your boat? Do you ALWAYS have all your tanks either fully pressed up or empty? I doubt it! How many times is your centerline slop tank half full? (that IS lube oil) And the gray water tank? And the potable water tanks?

When asking the office about this apparant ‘violation’ I was told that the real meaning was only the fuel tanks. That interpretation is NOT what the letter says. The letter says ALL tanks with fuel, potable, lube and hyd oil. But whose ass is this going to fall on, when an accident happens, and some hotshot LTJG is coming to make a name for himself during the investigation?

I LOVE it when some MorOn in the office is deciphering this, to his convenience, with NO regard for the actual intent of the law.

As regards the Valour:

She was towing, not in the notch.
Free surface effect had little to do with her sinking.
Cross connected tanks and [B]ADDING[/B] ballast is what killed those men.

Although it is unfortunate about the outcome, the Valour was NOT following the stability letter. In addition, it has become apparent that most towing vessels DON’T follow the letter!

My comments concerning stability letters is: their validity is in question, and actually have NOTHING to do with how the typical tugboat is operated. Sort of like the philosophy you are either obeying it completely, or you aren’t. It would appear to me that there are VERY few tugs that actually [B]can[/B] meet the stability letter, thus using the argument: “my boat has a stability letter and ‘I understand it’” does NOT equate with the reality of day to day operations.

This is not a ‘hot topic’ because the Valour incident was several years ago, and it is largely forgotten and ignored (just like how the Valour got into that situation in the first place.)

Until the industry and the CG acknowledges this, and it is dealt with, the stability letters are a joke!

But back to the original topic.

How is your ATB hooked up for towing?

Do you have an aft deck steering station?

Are you required to be hooked up to the hawser when underway?

Have you actually been offshore light boat? How does the boat ride? Can you stand up and walk around in the wheelhouse out at sea, when rolling? Is it safe to climb the ladder up and down in heavy weather?

Of course I am asking about the worst case scenario, but this is what we must prepare for!

Who else has thought about this?

What else is being thought about/planning in regards to safely transitioning from push to tow?

Emergency hawser on tug and one on barge.
Pick up line attached to tug.
Aft steering station in wheelhouse.

No, we don’t exactly follow the stability letter.

Last October we brought her out from Maine in a light gale with 30,000 gal of fuel and ballast tanks pressed.
Wasn’t bad, certainly not scary. Was glad the company sent an escort anyway.
After fitting out, fueling up and trimming the boat how we wanted, we took her for sea trials.
It was a sloppy day in November, again…not scary.

I don’t want to do it in a hurricane, but we all believe she’d be okay in a storm.
Head into the wind and just jog along.

All of the “dedicated” (no towing machine) ATBs I’ve seen have the emergency hawser stowed in a breakout box on the stern of the barge. When pinned in and underway, the hawser is connected to the barge stern and H-bitts on the stern of the tug. If knocked out of the notch, the tug station-keeps until a “real” tugboat arrives.
The “retros” I’ve seen pinned in appear to have the tow wire connected to the bow pennant or at least the emergency pick-up line connected to the tug.
The early failures on the West Coast that I know of were lubrication issues. INTERCON has since gone to a heavier grease, added more grease points to the bushings, better temperature monitoring, grease cycle adjustment from the wheelhouse and much better load cell monitoring. The newer systems have composite bushings. I haven’t heard if they are any better. I have heard of “lock” hose chafing causing the pin to beat back. Through regular inspections, I’ve found and corrected any chafing. I have had load cell sensor failure and of course the odd loose electrical connection but never knocked out. Load cell and sensor flush on start-up should be done regularly.
As far as slack tanks, it is more critical than conventional tugs. You add ballast to compensate fuel burned to minimize shear on the pins. It was never mentioned in the op manual but if knocked out of the notch, common sense would dictate topping off the slack ballast tanks

I heard recently that some guys are intentionally NOT hooking up to the hawser; preferring to just trail the pick up line, just planning on following until seas/conditions abate.

This is OK when off shore a ways, but not very practical in the last 10 miles of your voyage, when shore is near, and you are on a lee shore!

Does either way sound plausible? I personally think that ‘staying hooked up to the hawser for offshore work’ is the best (and practice that), but others don’t agree.

I certainly do realize the difference between inland and coastwise work, but how does one plan for a 1000 mile trip, and have divergent opinions? My original query is in light of realizing that there is NO set prescribed (industry standard) to follow. It hasn’t happened…yet, but when this does happen, and a calamity ensues, what are YOU going to tell the investigating officer when he questions your methodology, and practice? Since there are several different ‘trains of thought’ I am trying to get the ‘tracks’ out in the open so all can see the issue.

Apparently there are only 4 ATB crew that frequent this website? There must be more than that!

I sailed for over 10 years on Intercon ATB’s including the first Intercon Vessel.

In the time before we were double hulled, we would always connect the tow wire to the Barge Pendant then get back in the notch. Sometimes the pendant would be left up on the deck of the barge, if the weather was thought to be nice and the chance of towing was low, otherwise the pendat would be dropped and the wire pulled up snug. Once at sea the wire would be slacked off so it would not chaff.

When the weather kicked up enough where we had to “Break Out” of the notch I would man the winch while the Captain remained in the Lower Pilot House.

Once we were Doubled hulled the tow wire was not longer hooked up. We did have an Emergency Tow Wire that was ran down the rail of the Barge and was connected to a trailing line with a Float on it.

I am now retired and from seeing what the new and up coming wheel house personnel look like I am very glad that I retired when I did. We are losing all of the Captains and Mates that have experience towing and also breaking out due to weather. Let’s face it when was the last sea going rig built with towing in mind? I truly fear that when the time comes bad things are going to happen. You can train all that you want but what company is going to allow a Captain to Break Out in some weather just to train the crew on what to do when and if the time comes? You can train on simulators but nothing is the same as having to do it for real.

As for the Tug Valour, I lost some friends that day. I was very lucky that the Captains that I sailed with were very good that what they did. There were some that I would really have thought about walking off rather than sailing with them in bad weather.

If anyone has any questions please feel free to PM me.

Stay Safe,


We have an emergency towing hawser faked out on a platform above the main deck. Its covered for UV protection and there is a break in the railing to allow it to be passed to the main deck with the H bitt. There is no towing machine, and for the record, the raised lazeret is above the H bitts. We have a hawser board for that one. The design of the unit obviously emphasized sea keeping with heavy following seas over legitimately towing astern.

The hawser is not connected to anything. A messenger from the barge is tied off on the starboard bow of the tug, the messanger runs down the starboard side of the barge before shackling into 200’ of hawser in a box on the bow of barge, where the emergency hawser on the tug would be connected to.

Essentially all the parts are there, it would be an exhaustive procedure to put it all together in heavy weather, but certainly possible. The back deck is fairly well protected with high bulwarks and raised lazeret, out of the notch I’d expect less water than in. As noted, training for a full break out is not really practical, but none of the vessels in the fleet have apparently felt the need to have these pieces put together beforehand. The company has issued guidelines, but ultimate authority for the details is given to the master. Most of the fleet does a good mix of offshore and harbor voyages.

I was on the vessel when she was new out of the shipyard and had a training session with an Intercon rep about the pins. As capbbrucato stated, the recommendation is against breaking out if at all necessary. The system is designed for the pins to stay put even under complete power failure, albeit, they would get loose and make noise. Our series are rated to 23’ seas with a 3x safety factor. Sister boats have been in 20-25’, thrashed about but no mechanical problems. This is not to say that things can’t break.

as for the other questions… we don’t have a lower house or lower stern station, there is a station facing aft in the w/h however, you can almost see the back deck from it… stability light boat in heavy seas would be “questionable”; she’ll throw you off your feet with 10^ rudder running around the harbor, can’t imagine getting into seas and maneuvering to get on the wire. Then again our stability letter says we’ll be A-OK! In all honesty though, I doubt she’d topple over and in the lower decks it might be tolerable, but I’d question whether someone up top could physically handle the controls during a heavy weather maneuver. You might need a little more than “one hand for the ship, one hand for you” in this case.