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Tugboats Present Unseen Dangers to the Unwary

by Captain Kent Dresser
Safe/Sea Senior Staff Captain
Safe/Sea Boating Safety Columnist
email: kent.dresser@safesea.com

Many of us think of tugboats in almost a romantic way. We see tugboats on Christmas cards, in cartoon shows, scenic artwork, and so many other places. And yes, in a way, they are romantic. They represent the ocean that so many of us enjoy, and they provide a bit of mystery to the onlooker.

The sight of tugboats, provide a sort of nostalgia for lovers of the ocean. However, like so many other things we encounter on the water, if a tugboat is not treated with the utmost respect, the on-looking boater could find himself in a very bad situation before he knows it.

Tugboats are small in comparison to other merchant vessels, but don’t let their size fool you. Tugs are solidly built, very powerful, hardworking even in the toughest of conditions, and most importantly to the vessels in their vicinity, tugboats are often limited in their ability to maneuver with respect to sea room, traffic, or the depth of the channel.

The majority of the tugs seen in the New England area are less than 150 feet long, range in horsepower from 1,500 to over 10,000, and are moving barges or ships many times their size and tonnage.

Tugs that are working offshore are most often seen towing a barge at distances reaching 2,000 feet behind them. That’s almost a half of a mile. From a distance, a tug and tow could easily be confused for two separate vessels.

Should your vessel venture between a tug and its tow, you would quickly and unhappily learn that a tow wire or hawser is connecting the two units.

When in inland waters such as Narragansett Bay and moving a loaded barge, a tug is usually pushing the barge. Although you may only see a few feet of freeboard on the barge, it could be drawing over 25 feet of water, making the barge difficult to maneuver and even more difficult to stop. It is not unreasonable for a tug pushing a loaded barge to need half of a mile to come to an emergency stop. A tug towing astern could need up to 1 mile to stop.

When moving a light or empty barge in coastal waters, a tug may tow the barge very close behind it in order to navigate through winding channels. If a tug were to stop too quickly with a barge that close behind it, the barge would just keep moving and either sail past the tug and trip (capsize) it, or it would overrun the tug from behind. Imagine being rear-ended by a steel box almost the size of a football field that is three stories high and moving at 11 knots.

Another important fact to remember is that the majority of barges you see moving up and down Narragansett Bay are carrying petroleum products. The barges I move at work range in capacity from 65,000 barrels to 80,000 barrels. That’s over 3 million gallons of oil, gasoline, or other petroleum products with a total weight of about 9000 tons.

Considering the environmental effects of spilling 3 million gallons of oil in the coastal waters of New England, coupled with the tug crew’s desire to return home to their families safely, there is clearly no margin for error by the tug crew nor the recreational boater.

With these facts in mind, it is important for the recreational boater that is in the vicinity of a tugboat to be very cautious. Stay well out of the way of that tug, even if you are a sailboat. Many times, I have transited through a restricted channel just to have a sailboat cross in front of us, assuming it had the right of way. Many times small power boats have cut in front of us so close that they disappeared under the bow of the barge we were pushing and then reappeared on the other side of the barge.

Should any of those boats have stopped suddenly because of a breakdown, change in the wind, getting tangled in a lobster pot, or any other reason, there would have been absolutely no chance of stopping our barge without all 9,000 of our tons colliding with the other boat at a speed of 5-7 knots.

Should we hit one of those boats, the chance of us feeling the impact would be very slim, but the chance of those boaters surviving the incident would be even slimmer. To stay safe, think of the trucker’s rule, “If you can’t see my mirrors, I can’t see you!” Well, this is the case with a tugboat’s pilothouse. If you can’t see the pilothouse, the tug can’t see you, and that can happen a long distance ahead of the tow.

Many people scoff at the “Rule of Tonnage”, and though it’s not an actual rule of the road, this concept is one of the best rules of thumb a safety conscious pleasure boater could employ.

Next time you head out on the bay with your friends and loved ones on board, please exercise extreme caution when navigating in the vicinity of tugs, ships, or any other boat. The navigational decisions you make while on your boat could mean the difference between fun that lasts the day, or tragedy that lasts a lifetime.

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Have you ever wanted to learn to handle your boat like a Safe/Sea Captain can handle his? Now you can learn that, or just how to be a better & safer mariner. Longtime Safe/Sea Captain Kent Dresser has started a new Hands-On boater training program aimed at improving any boater's maritime skills.

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