USCG Tug And Towing Endosement – Proposed Changes

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February 27, 2008

The Contra Costa Times article “Critics Fear More Barge Disasters” of February 19, 2008 and the KGO TV Channel 7 report on tug boat licensing presented eye opening views on the crewing and operations of harbor tugs. Although in excellent detail the views expressed and the comments made by active tug operators presented a deeper problem than just the shortage of qualified people. It illuminated the government intervention into unfamiliar fields using academic research techniques. Such data gathering processes are excellent in determining sales, production and pedestrian patterns but when dealing with people’s, livelihoods and professional experience and knowledge, they are inappropriate.Of concern, in this case, is the process used to publish intentions to make new or change rules. Obviously, by the limited number of reported written responses (14) to a possible population of several thousand the sampling was insignificant.

Therefore to continue further is ineffective. A better and more effective sampling technique is warranted. The USCG criteria “to make a good case” is certainly not convincing or professional.

There is no doubt that the tug people, like so many other transportation occupations need to improve their safety, education and training. An example of an acceptable level of effort put forth is the airline industry; however, the public pays. In my experience, I have found tug people, inland and off shore, to be concerned about the petty bureaucratic confusion of government officials, but angry about managerial mis-management. The law relating to tugs and tug operation as capsulated in ” Parks on the law of Tug, Tow and Pilotage” is mind boggling but almost essential reading for the guy in the pilot house. Most tug operators are given tasks and provided two options: either do the job, or some one else will. Few will support them in confrontations with management involving risk, safety and lawful precedence, mostly it is: up to the tug skipper to decide. A tug operator has little choice in task, crew, time or condition although the laws hold them accountable.

It is appropriate, under the circumstances cited above, that the USCG reconsider their position based on the little response previously acquired and conduct a series of on-scene visits to the major tug boat areas and determine what is actually needed and how to accomplish it. A small professional. representative experienced team could effectively accomplish a meaningful result in a few months. The result may not be perfect, but the effort should be.

It is not what one achieves, but the effort that prove its worth.


Captain John Denham is a veteran of 66 years maritime experience in seamanship, ship handling, navigation, piloting, and education. he is also author of The Assistant and DD 891 .

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