Letting go / Making Tugs Fast

Letting go the tug/s too early isn’t that just so damn typical, INCONUS and overseas, always the same damn scenario. I am simplifying generically w/o the details to digest, using an overly broad brushstroke but as a rule, pilots just can’t stay on a few minutes longer, sometimes I wonder why they even bother coming to the bridge when overseas; the tugs can’t be cut away soon enough and fast enough, can they regardless what the pilots supposedly tell them, or maybe the pilots only pretend to tell them. The master never wants to bring the ridiculous concerns of the “pitiful barely competent mate” to the attention of the pilot for fear of embarrassing himself In Mundra, India it almost cost my AB his leg as the tag line I tended was ripped out of my hand by a full backing tug, and wrapped around his calf like a snake pulling him through the chock until I cut the line with my spyderco na’re a second to spare. The masters cannot wait for the operation to be completed minutes earlier, sometimes to impress the pilot and sometimes in order to get stock tips from pilots instead of taking in the mooring details, always seems there is never a second to spare but weeks to waste in shipyards, millions in damages, lost freight and lost limbs to give, but what do I know…

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cThis should be a separate thread but some crews have over learned the lesson of not dropping the tug lines onto the deck of the tug. Which is something that should not be done in the case when the tug is still under the line.

But there is also the case where the tug is backing away as you say. In Japan they are often backing away and reeling in the line in that case the line has to be dropped into the water.

The problem comes when the crew is trying to lower the line under control to the tug but the tug is backing way AND reeling in the line expecting the crew to drop the line.

The tug rapidly reeling in while backing is intended to keep the line from going into the screw.

As a newly minted AB, the first time I released a tug’s line, he’d only backed off a few feet and I let the whole line go. A more experienced AB there with me gave me an odd look. When I looked over the rail, the line handler on the bow of the tug was staring up at me. If looks could kill… Lesson learned.

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The mate in charge should know how to safely let a tug go and should be in charge of the deck. There a lot of mates out there that are clueless about this.

The mate should be at the rail where he can see both his crew and the tug. Many pilots and most tug crews are not aware that dropping the line in the water is standard practice in some ports/situations. So they assume the ship’s crew knows not to drop the line.

I don’t know who you’ve been sailing with but as a mate and now as a captain, this has never been the case with me. A tug that backs off before it has been properly let go is typically the tugs doing.

Impress the pilot? Really?


I was on a conventional tug with an H bit on the bow. I stayed as close to under my line as I could when the order was given to let go. Most crews lowered it down on deck without issue but some just let ‘er rip. The worst offenders were Chinese bulkers and US flag ships. There was a time or two I had to call the pilot and tell him I had to peel off because they dropped the line while we were underway, before we had been ordered to peel off, because I didn’t want to foul a wheel. Sometimes either myself or the engineer (if he happened to be up) would have to help a small deckhand heave the wet heavy line back over the bow.


In Japan ship assist tugs typically have big lines reels controlled from the wheel house. When these tugs are let go after assisting with an unmooring it’s standard practice for them to back away at full speed while reeling in the line. So the ship’s crew has to take the eye off the bitt, drop it and stay clear.

It’s imperative that the mate in charge understand what the tug crew is expecting.

Then someone in each port should tell the ship’s crew what’s expected.

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He was talking about a master releasing a tug too early. The reason that never happens is that the pilot releases the tugs, not the master.

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Cue the bugge talking crap about shitty American tugs and the superiority of foreign designs

Yu unfortunately “really”. Was the bridge hand-puppet with the same master on other occasions when he would criticize the un-seamanlike practices of his deck force to the pilots. There is a place and time to compare industry practices but regaling the pilot with perceived incompetencies of your own crew is not recommended. Thankfully you are not cut from that cloth Captain.

Roger on all your last. Had a close call with tug assist wire in Bremerhaven as well. backing and reeling as fast as they could and when we didn’t risk life and limb to drop the wire eye they became incensed. Mundra, India is the largest privately operated port in India I was informed and seem to be in a pissing match with the larger public and public/private ports such as Mumbai and their tugs cannot take their lines in fast enough.

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Given the risks, I’d think that should either be a matter for explicit agreement between ship and tug, or the subject of an industry-wide placard/indicator on board the tug that would inform anyone looking of their practice/intentions. Say an eye with a messenger line vs an eye in a big splash.

Maybe the P&I clubs could get on this?

A placard on board the tug would be of no use to mates or ABs looking straight down at it from 40 feet above . If an industry wide practice is to be put into effect, I see it as the pilot’s responsibility. He is the person on board the ship most familiar with local tug practices. Final docking/undocking is a busy time for him so he should advise the captain or a mate on the bridge to make sure the crew on deck knows what to expect well beforehand.

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And if it were painted on the pilothouse roof? Or zip-tied to the eye splice? Three words to the guys on the sharp end is all that’s needed. Drop the line/lower the line.

In a perfect world that would work, however, it may be best not to set it in stone. Conditions for the tug may vary day to day such as current, proximity to other ships or structures, nearby shoals, etc…


Yeah, the mate should stand at the rail or somewhere he can see both his crew and the tug. If the tug is waiting under the line with the crew waiting on deck don’t drop it on them. On the other hand if the tug is pulling away at speed, lowering slowly is a bad move.

In the U.S. it’s almost always lower the line in control. In Japan it varies. A deck officer should be able to judge.


Let’s not. It’s like a breath of fresh air not having to anticipate the buzz kill.

Some ports in Northern Europe send out warnings. The agent sends them. I’ve only seen warnings not to drop the lines.

Here is Steamship Mutual Safe Mooring Practice

Tugs’ lines should only be let go when the order to do so is received from the bridge. Once
the tow line eye has been removed from the bitts the tug should be signalled that recovery of the line can commence. The tug’s line should be lowered under control with the messenger tended carefully whilst the tug heaves in his line.The person tending the messenger must ensure they are standing clear of the loose messenger line flaked on the deck. Once the tug has recovered his towing line on deck, the messenger should be tended so far as possible whilst the tug crew are recovering it on deck.

Towing lines and messengers should not be let go and dropped into the water as this can lead to problems as one of the following case histories shows.

Maybe they’ve never got a claim from a ship’s crew.

Isn’t Never Stand in a Bight! engraved on everyone’s forehead?