The Scourge of the American Petroleum Tankers That Prowl the British Columbia Coast - by INGMAR LEE (U.S. ATBs)

The Scourge of the American Petroleum Tankers That Prowl the British Columbia Coast - Counterpunch

November 26 marked a dreadful anniversary for the tanker-bedraggled British Columbia coast. One year ago in Hecate Strait, the American ATB “pusher tug” Jake Shearer broke apart from its fully loaded 10,000 deadweight-ton capacity petroleum barge and came within a stone’s throw of destroying the most magnificent, wild and precious region of the Pacific Ocean.

There is a reasonable, pragmatic and cost-effective solution to this issue. We are not endeavouring to deprive our Alaska neighbours of their domestic fuels supply. This traffic simply needs to travel offshore in proper seaworthy ships, in the designated shipping lanes where all the rest of the tankers must go. It is only about 20% farther for them, and in the event of trouble, there would be sufficient sea-room to effect a proper rescue. It’s time the Government of Canada should stop with proffering platitudes, and step up to do something real that will prevent the next, otherwise imminent ATB disaster.

From the article:

As the crew dealt with their numerous emergencies, the loaded fuel barge drifted out of control straight towards the Gosling Rocks, -a formidable set of reefs that extend southwards from the Goose Islands group into Hecate Strait. The ATB’s single working skiff was, -in what can only be described as outright negligent maritime hubris,- inexplicably mounted on the barge, -with no working skiff of any sort on the tug. Additionally, the Jake Shearer carried no conventional towing winch, or any other equipment by which it might retrieve its wayward barge. For more than an hour as the crew struggled to stabilize their stricken vessel, the barge drifted inexorably towards catastrophe.

The confused track of the Jake Shearer desperatelytrying to prevent its loaded barge from foundering on the Gosling Rocks. photo: MarineTraffic shiptracker screenshot

Eventually the crew of the Jake Shearer turned to the problem of its drifting barge. They endeavoured to nudge the barge away from its steady trajectory towards the rocks. This is a dangerous maneuver that has resulted in disaster in the past. On the evening of December 22, 1988, the tug, Ocean Service, broke its towline to its barge, the Nestucca, off the entrance to Grays Harbour, Washington State. While maneuvering in rough seas in an attempt to recapture the drifting Nestucca, it punched a hole in one of the barge’s tanks, causing 5,500 barrels of Bunker C oil to spill into the sea. The resulting slick fouled beaches all the way to Cape Scott at the north end of Vancouver Island.

Eventually after a long struggle, two courageous crew were able to leap from the heaving decks of the Jake Shearer to the barge, and from there deploy an anchor, and finally, the Zidell Marine 277 fetched up and held about a stones throw from the Gosling Rocks. The separated vessels were towed the next day to sheltered waters near Bella Bella where temporary repairs were effected by divers. 10 days later, the damaged vessels were tied together with ropes and towed north to Alaska.

The info about the towing winch is incorrect.

There is more in the article that is “incorrect” beyond the tow winch information.
The author self describes as “tree-hugger, tree-climber,Buddhist, wilderness lover, Pacific coast sailor, India-Burma-Pakistan wallah, Himalayan trekker”; not to be confused with someone bounded by objectivity.
Nevertheless, the Nathan E Stewart grounding was a tragedy and the Jake Shearer uncoupling nearly so.

Your first sentence made it sound like you were going to fact check the article. Quick switch in the second sentence.

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Here is an article describing the (said to be) identical sister tug:

Looking at a picture of the aft deck there do not appear to be a towing winch, unless the cross tree bollard and capstan is classified as “tow winch”:

There are apparently an emergency tow line stretch along the side of the barge though:

Exactly what good that is going to do on a tug with no tow winch is uncertain.
Unless an emergency tow line is always attached and ready for immediate deployment on the tug??

That does not appear to be the case on this picture:

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Yeah, I didn’t notice the punctuation in this spec sheet.

Her towing equipment consists of a towing winch. Outfitted with 2400(ft) with 2.25(in) towing wire.

I read it as a towing winch with 2400 feet of two and a quarter wire. But that’s not what it says. It says the towing equipment consists of a towing winch, period.

Even that seem like a stretch. To call this a towing winch.


Seems like the spec sheet was written to mislead.

The article is correct however, the Jack Shearer does not have a conventional towing winch.

I’ve only seen this vessel from a distance.

That little capstan will not handle wire, certainly not 2.25” wire. That thing might handle 2.25” diameter soft line without too much of a strain on it.

No sign of any emergency Tow wire stored anywhere on the tug either. There is only one good way to store a tow wire — on a tow winch.

No winches on the tug for the push wires. Those are on the barge.

I assume that she must have a soft hawser stored in a box on the 2nd deck.

The specs must be a cut and paste error from a different boat’s spec sheet.

My impression is that the primary design criteria was to make this vessel very cheap to build. It looks like a “Walmart boat” to me.

Also, I have met guys who worked on this boat and absolutely hated it.

It’s ironic that Harley started picking up Kirby’s contracts after the Nathan Stewart incident, using this type of equipment.

The author of that article is an eco freak with no expertise who should not be taken seriously.

In Harley’s defense, I’ve got to say that changes to Canadian regulations after the Nathan Stewart incident caused the Jake Shearer incident. She should have been safely steaming in the calm conditions of the Inside Passage, not out in Hecate Strait where the Canadians forced her to go.


Here is the thread at the time: Jake Shearer (barge) separated from its tug near Goose Island - as best I could tell it came apart in 4 meters seas.

I’ve not seen a report from the NTSB.

Are those boats banned from inside or just required to have recency? or a pilot?

I have heard a bunch of different stories, but I don’t actually know what rules apply to an oil ATB in British Columbia. Most often I hear that they are supposed to take the most outside route that weather permits. I’ve also heard that they can’t go inside north of Cape Caution without a pilot. I don’t know if that is true.

In theory 12 trips is required for a Pacific Pilotage waiver. I don’t know about recency requirements. I’ve never seen this seriously enforced.

I know people that claim to have pilotage waivers who only make one round trip per year through the Inside Passage.

BC requires a watch officer and a lookout. Some boats log that the AB is on lookout duties in the wheelhouse while in BC waters.

I’ve heard a rumor that since the Nathan Stewart incident, that Transport Canada now requires all Kirby boats to take a pilot. I don’t know if there is any truth to that.

My observation is that Kirby went from having a huge PNW and Alaska oil transport business a few years ago to almost nothing now.

Some of the Harley barges the Fight ALS comes to mind have a drum on the bow the holds the emergency tow wire the wire deploys out under brake tension. The capstain on tug can be used to pull the end of the emergency wire over to the tug. One of the Harley ATBs did have a tow winch that was removed. I’m not sure which one.

AK Marine Highway must have two bridge officers during the transit through the Inside Passage to Bellingham from Ketchikan to have the pilot requirement waived. Granted a totally different industry with higher manning. No trip requirement.

I have a very basic understanding of the Canadian system of government, but I do not know how their regulatory system works.,_c._1270/section-10.html

The Pacific Pilotage Authority is a separate entity from Transport Canada. It’s a regional pilotage authority formed by the Federal government, but it seems to be similar to state pilotage in the US.

What I was trying to say was that I don’t understand how regulations are adopted and enforced in Canada.

Pilotage for tugs in BC gets complicated. There seems to be some differences between the written regulations and the actual practices. Changes were made following the Nathan Stewart incident. More are coming.

Canada has done a recent countrywide study of pilotage and has recommended major changes. Who knows how long this takes? A year or a decade?

The US and Canada have a MOU that generally exempts each other’s tugs from pilotage in both countries. Maybe this will change.

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The pilotage is not so much the problem here but the unseaworthiness of the combination of push tug and barge is. This is clearly shown by the incident with the Jake Shearer where with some heavy weather, to be expected in those waters, the system dramatically failed.

It is chilling to read that after this incident it was business as usual. The trade went on as if nothing had happened. No real tow winches fitted, no skiff on the tug, no improvement of the hooking up arrangement. The marine world is a totally different environment from the world of aviation with a kind of backward mentality. We seem to learn nothing from the past.

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The Nathan E. Stewart went aground because the crew was too small to do the work required. Second mate alone in the little joke of a wheelhouse and working too many hours. The Jake Shearer came apart because it wasn’t seaworthy.

This isn’t a problem that the Canadian government can fix with regulations.

Why not? Just ban the use of ATB in Canadian waters.

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The barge makes the money. The accommodation, the galley, the mess, rooms etc support the crew. The engine room with machine shop, tools, the bos’n locker etc support the crew.

The ATB profits by maximizing the money making section and minimizing the support section.

To make matters worse they have to use these various connection schemes to maintain the legal fiction that it’s a tug and tow.

What’s happening is the owners make money but it’s the crew that has to close the gap between what they need to do job safely and what they have.

In the end it’s going to be the crew that takes the blame when they inevitably fail to keep things together.


In Canada there seems not to exist an environmental movement or organization of any importance, apart from groups that care for bird sanctuaries, protection of the great bear and forestry., so it is kind of free for all by the looks of it. An easy setting for oil companies and the like, money then talks.

Today’s environmental movement in Canada is different. There are a few small, member-based, grassroots groups, but there is nothing on the scale of SNCC, MNS or ASSÉ. These groups organize local events and actions, but lack the scale to set the direction for national or even provincial campaigns. The only national-level groups are Environmental Non-Governmental Organizations (ENGOs).

It could explain the lack of improvement and change in the transport of oil with barges as could be expected in view of the accidents and almost catastrophal incidents. No pressure, no change. The lethargy of the government in these matters is worrisome to say that least.

The Canadians have banned both tankers and ATBs from the best protected and safest inshore routes in Northern BC.

I think that was a very poor, politically correct, decision to appease local stakeholders.

If the Jake Shearer had been following the traditional well protected inside route (which the Canadians banned it from), the incident would not have occurred.

It would make a lot more sense to require pilots for oil transport and continue to use the inshore routes.