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


My remark about a possible redesign was motivated by the fact that the Articouple of the Jake Shearer broke away from the barge in 4 meter waves. I just found this link which learned me that this wave height was in fact a little bit beyond the specs of the system. The maximum allowable wave height is 3 - 3.5 m.

can maintain high serviceability of ordinary cargo barges operated under pushing in comparatively calm inland seas and coastal areas.


But it’s already known how to move oil at sea, a tanker, That’s been done for many more years than ATBs,’

If you think of an ATB as an improvement over a wire tug towing a barge, yeah, the ATB is an improvement,

But if you think of it as a tanker with two new failure points, the coupling system and a short-handed crew then it’s a tanker - with two extra failure points.

Not coincidentally in the last two years that is exactly the failures that have occurred. The Nathan E Stewart had the single person in the wheelhouse fall asleep and the Jake Shearer came apart.


Pins rated for 3.5 to 4 meter seas sounds like a design for protected waters with a close eye on the weather.


That is how it used to be done. Imperial Oil ran small product tankers up and down the inside for many years. The logging camps, villages, lighthouses, and mills were supplied by tug and barge as well. They were never considered a “scourge.”


An improvement over wire, yes. Certainly not a tanker and not meant to replace one. My point is that these systems have been around for many years with minimal incident. The fact that the Jake was using them in conditions exceeding those of its design specifications. That is why it failed and that is their fault.

As for the Nathan Stewart, they were required to have a second person in the bridge, but didn’t. And where was that crew member? Totally preventable.

Both of those accidents are the result of operator error, not a fault of the machinery. There have been plenty of outright disasters in all facets of the maritime industry. The ATB model is not going anywhere.


I remember the small tanker ALASKA STANDARD delivering all over South Central and Western Alaska to every place with an adequate dock. She grew old and was not replaced because a new tanker could not compete on cost against an uninspected tug and barge with a 5 man crew.


Just wondering how many have worked on a ATB?

There are many different systems in use now a days. I sailed on Intercon Equipped rigs and have been in 30’ plus seas more than once. When it comes to ATB Couplers, IMHO Intercon is at the top for sea going and Bludsworth would be close to the bottom. As long as the Pins and Bushings are properly greased prior to sailing and that they are greased as needed at sea, there is not much that can go wrong with the Intercon System.

Is the Intercon system perfect, NO but it’s hands down better in many ways. If you have a failure and have to “break out” of the notch you screwed up some how. In my years of sailing as CE on Intercon equipped rigs, the only time we came close (ok, real close) to coming out of the notch was when the 2nd mate retracted the pin rather than extending it when the pressure dropped. It’s normal to have to “pump up” the system while in heavy seas. My company for whatever reason decided NOT to go with Intercons controls and wanted to use their’s. This was a big mistake in my opinion.

Some of these pins setups are “floating” pins and do not form a firm connection with the sockets on the barge. This allows for lateral movement of the tug which can lead to anything to a lousy ride to coming out of the notch. The Bludsworth system’s weak point is they will kick out if the Tug pitches to much, 16-19 degrees IIRC. There is no warning and when it happens you had better be ready to go astern before you end up holing the tug!
I’ve always been interested in the different types of connection systems and have done a decent amount of research into the different systems. The system on the Kirby rig is one of the lower cost systems and is used a lot for converting a wire boat to a ATB configuration.

Some systems require constant Air or Hydraulic Pressure to maintain locked in the notch. The Intercon system is a geared system the is basically a Bull Gear driving a large threaded shaft which drives the pins out.


I am wondering whether these barges have a double hull or are they single skinned?


This isn’t a question of Intercon vs Bludsworth vs Articouple. It’s a question of any mechanical/hydraulic system vs plates of solid steel.


Nathan E. Stewart ran her barge aground and the pins tore out of her hull and she sank. I don’t think that more grease would have helped. Barge was empty, it was the tug’s fuel and lube oil that spilled, because the tanks were compromised along with the rest of the hull,


All oil barges in the US are double hull.

Except, a few small barges under 10,000 barrels operating in Western Alaska can still be single skin.
The theory is that these very shallow draft barges are necessary to deliver fuel to remote areas and that the extra weight and draft of a double hull barge would be unworkable.


The NATHAN STEWART incident was a grounding caused by undermanning and fatigue. The cause and damage had nothing to do with the pin system, and nothing to do with the oil barge. It would not have mattered whether it was pushing or towing astern. It could have just as easily been a freight barge. The only oil that spilled came from the tug’s fuel as a result of grounding damage.


We have been trying. There’s the Oceans Protection Plan, which was in the works allready before Nathan E. Stewart, but announced just days after. And there’s the extra funding that comes with the pipeline… whenever that gets lined up. They’ve had to stop construction on the new response bases since the funding was tied to the pipeline.

Along with new response bases, the agency plans to add 120 new employees and 40 new vessels at locations along B.C.'s southern shipping lanes.


Here is some background on the pilot waivers etc (the occurrence being the Nathan Stewart.

4.1.1 Pacific Pilotage Authority Canada

On 16 October 2016, 3 days after the occurrence, the Pacific Pilotage Authority Canada (PPA) informed the authorized representative that, effective immediately, all British Columbia coast pilotage waivers held by all Kirby Offshore Marine Operating LLC vessels and marine officers were being revoked.

Following the occurrence, the PPA began to monitor vessel traffic entering the pilotage area. The traffic monitoring resulted in the identification of 17 companies operating in compulsory pilotage waters without a pilot or the required PPA pilotage waiver.

On 24 October, 11 days after the occurrence, the PPA issued a letter explaining amendments to its waiver system to companies that held a pilotage waiver. These amendments stated that all vessels must have 2 people on the bridge at all times while operating in confined waters, and that 1 of those must be the waiver holder. The amendments also indicated that vessels carrying petroleum products as cargo but not delivering fuel to local communities

  • are no longer allowed to transit the northern section of the Inside Passage;
  • are to follow a route between mainland British Columbia and Haida Gwaii; and
  • in adverse weather conditions, and after clearance with vessel traffic, can proceed through Laredo Channel and Principe Channel by entering via Laredo Sound or Browning Entrance (Appendix C, route B).

These additional requirements were immediately implemented on an interim basis, until a full risk assessment was conducted.

From November 2016 to May 2017, a risk assessment project was undertaken to assess the interim amendments for their net impact on safety, identify any inherent safety gaps, and make recommendations for further improvements to the safety of vessels operating under pilotage waivers on British Columbia’s northern coast. The project’s risk management team was composed of the PPA, Transport Canada (TC), the Canadian Coast Guard (CCG), the United States Coast Guard, BC Coast Pilots, the Council of Marine Carriers, First Nations groups, and Canadian and U.S. company pilot waiver holders.

The project concluded that the interim measures implemented by the PPA in October 2016 were effective in reducing the navigational risk to pilotage-waiver traffic on the north coast of British Columbia. On 23 May 2017, the PPA released the project report, entitled A Risk Assessment of the Pacific Pilotage Authority’s Process for Granting Waivers from Compulsory Pilotage of the BC Coast . The report recommendations are incorporated within the PPA’s “Standard of Care” Implementation Guidelines.Footnote 127 Although these guidelines do not have the force of law, they include the conditions under which the PPA will consent to granting waivers to qualified applicants.

On 14 August 2017, after further consultation with TC, the PPA proposed amendments to its guidelines for granting future pilotage waivers, eliminating the option of a 1-person bridge watch during the hours of darkness, by clarifying "that the relaxation of the requirement for two persons on the bridge should only be considered available in conditions of daylight and good visibility."Footnote 128


If she wasn’t an ATB, the pins wouldn’t have holed the hull. The fact that she was an ATB is what made this thing as bad as it was.

“It was horrific—seeing the ocean full of diesel, and that sickening odor,” recalls Jordan Wilson, a Heiltsuk coastal guardian watchman, and one of the first on the scene. “All the hydraulic oils and engine oils—everything was just oozing out of that boat for weeks.”

from Hakai Magazine


The Jake Shearer had a 3 meter limit? Is that right?

Even using the inside IIRC you still have to go outside at Cape Caution and at Dixon Entrance.


That is exactly what I meant, excellent plans! And now we will have once more to wait for the money to come through. Always money that gets in the way. They better donot wait too long…


Obviously, the Inside Passage (and everywhere else} needs the best prepositioned clean up technology for local conditions that is practical and affordable. To the extent possible, the local fishermen need to be trained and on paid retainer to provide a prompt initial response to a spill. Gear needs to be on hand before professional clean up crews fly in.

Unfortunately, the fact must recognized that a significant percentage of spilled oil cannot be recovered. Don’t have a spill in the first place. However, some spills are inevitable. Fortunately, “non persistent” oils like diesel and gasoline evaporate, weather, and dissipate fairly quickly. There is serious short term toxicity to marine organisms, but it is not long lasting.

The real problem is crude, HFO, and other “highly persistent” black oils. These spills are very resistant to clean up and the adverse effects last for decades. Given that there will always be limited spill prevention and clean up resources, the focus should be on black oil.


The photo you posted of the NATHAN STEWART shows most of the bottom crushed in and undoubtedly leaking. The port side pin is missing, but there is little damage to the heavy structure around the pin. Nor would there be fuel tanks in the “pin room” surrounding the pin.

If the tug had been towing astern, the barge would have run up on the tug and crushed it down onto the ledge where it ran aground. There would have been a lot more damage and more spilled oil. Of course, the barge would have also been heavily damaged. Since the barge was empty, probably not much additional spill.

If the tug had been pushing the barge with push wires instead of pins. The wires would probably have parted immediately. The barge would have drifted off and grounde elsewhere.

It may be that the strong pin attachment enabled the barge to drag the boat over the ledge and into deeper water where it then sank. Or a rising tide may have enabled the barge to drag the tug off the ledge.

If it had been a tanker instead of a tug barge combination, with an undamaged empty barge, the salvage would have been a lot more difficult.

Again, I don’t see how the fact that it was an ATB or the pins failing after the grounding contributed to this spill.


No BNWAS, no ECDIS, single watchstander in the wheelhouse. Fatigue due to 6 and 6 watch standing in port.