Friday, April 22, 2011

Navigating into Technology – A Response

By Hugh Ware

April 2011

I have known Ron Burchett for some years and have come to respect him and the wide range of his knowledge and wisdom. When Ron speaks, I listen for I know I will learn. His recent article “Navigating into Technology” (Pacific Maritime Magazine, February 2011) was typical Burchett and I found myself alternately nodding in agreement and wanting to butt in with more info. Editor Chris Philips graciously agreed that I could respond, so below are several quotes from the Burchett article followed by discussions. The original article is available at

The Spinning Tug
“In one extreme case the tug suffered a complete inadvertent rotation and the towline wrapped completely around the superstructure.”

The explanation here is perhaps out of the mainstream of Burchett’s article but it is a fascinating and revealing tale. Here’s what happened. The date was November 19, 2000, the port was Auckland, New Zealand, and the tug was the Waka Kume, a 4,400–hp ASD (azimuthing stern drive) compact tug designed for ship-work by Vancouver designer A.G. McIlwain. His tugs tend to have minimum protrusions (keels or skegs) on the bottom and so the underwater profile of the Waka Kume is a clean sweeping curve from bow to stern, interrupted only by the two azimuthing drives and some protective framework made from piping. The 50-ton-bollard-pull tug was and is extremely agile and was designed to be highly maneuverable. For example, an operator can spin the tug through 360 degrees using both units at full power in only 12 seconds. This impressive agility may have contributed to what happened.

The operator that day had four years experience in operating the Auckland Harbour Board’s other tugs, including one featuring another form of azimuthing-drive controls. But he was not particularly familiar with the Waka Kume and its drive controls, having only been involved in about four ship movements using it, and he was considered to be still under-trained.

Adding another ingredient in the accident-to-be was the tug’s port azimuthing drive, which had been exhibiting erratic behavior over a period of several weeks. In multiple trouble-shooting visits, two factory technicians identified a variety of causes. Each problem was supposedly “fixed” and both technicians considered the drive to be functional on the day of the accident. But was it?

In the midst of a routine maneuver while working a ship, the port unit froze while the starboard azimuthing unit was thrusting ahead and both azimuthing units were on at least half power. The tug started rotating rapidly. In less than 30 seconds, the headline to the ship had made a complete turn around the superstructure. Quick, cool actions by both the operator and the engineer (who was in the wheelhouse to operate the winch) stopped the rotation and, in the words of the official accident report, there were “no injuries to the crew, but the tug suffered extensive damage to the superstructure, starboard funnel and some deck fittings.”

This brief summary, of course, is completely unsatisfactory to the truly curious who want to know “what really happened” and they are referred to where a search for Report 00-211 will bring up a most-thorough report by the New Zealand accident board. Be warned, however, that you may not be able to decide whether the accident’s cause was mechanical in nature or the result of operator failure; the board could not come to a decision there.

Dinks and Dents
“Many cases of minor damage, often involving damage to the aft quarters, go unreported.”

Tugs do get beat up. That’s the nature of the work they do. But how much of the damage is preventable? That was a question that bothered Ip Kam Wah, Xavier, then a junior-management-level employee of The Hongkong Salvage & Towage Co Ltd. He repaired company tugs in the day and worked on a master’s degree at night and needed a research subject for his thesis. Management and tug drivers agreed to allow him to study the company’s towing operations, evaluate the existing training schemes for tugmasters, question tugmasters and analyze their responses, determine how a tug actually behaves, and so on. Ip presented a summary paper at the 15th International Tug & Salvage convention at Cape Town, South Africa in 1998, and I was present. Although the paper was relatively short, it contained a surprising amount of information that tugmasters and tugowners should know. For example, he found that most company tug drivers didn’t know where their azimuthing-drive tugs were while maneuvering.

Before Ip and company general director Alan Loynd gave their paper, we in that Cape Town audience were asked to solve a hypothetical problem, one of fourteen maneuvers used in tests with an actual ASD. An ASD is backing at eight knots. One drive is then turned outward to a 45° angle. Question: Where will the tug be 30 seconds later? Most of us (including some experienced tug operators) guessed that the tug would follow a big fishhook-shaped path, ending up somewhere off where the tug’s bow had been when we started. That was not the correct answer: the tug would have ended up slightly cocked and just about on the spot where the tug’s bow had been. In a real world situation, the several beam-widths difference between our guess and the actuality could have resulted in damage to ship or tug.

Who operated the Hong Kong tugs? They were mostly middle-aged, most had more than five year’s experience in tug driving, and their employer considered them to be “a fairly solid bunch of men who were felt to be competent and unlikely to welcome ‘modern’ training methods.” However, detailed interviews revealed that a vast majority of the company’s 33 tug operators felt they were: under-trained, had difficulty operating in confined spaces or bad weather, and lacked self-confidence in critical or dangerous situations. They thought they needed more classroom training on handling emergency situations and even wanted lectures on the theory of tughandling and shiphandling techniques. To sum the situation, they felt that the “on-the-job” training they had received was not enough, and one consequence was battered tugs.

Ip’s paper was presented more than a decade ago, and one can assume that all these operators were soon retrained, many have retired, and the remainder competently handle today’s higher-powered ASDs. But one is left to wonder whether the company took other actions than retraining. It seems that it did and, funnily enough, the solution isn’t mentioned in the paper itself but was mentioned in the Q&A session that followed.

First, a necessary bit of background. Back then, the company operated three fleets: launches, conventional tugs handling lightering barges, and the shipberthing ASDs. Promotion was linear; a young man started by driving a launch and then progressed through the conventional tugs to the big-time tugs. But, as Ip’s work revealed, that had led to problems. Management’s solution? Take lads raw from the Hong Kong Sea School and train them to operate the azimuthing-drive tugs. And don’t let them get close to a conventional tug!

Training the Inexperienced
“… a formal crew training program may prove to be the only way to generate a suitable workforce with a recognizable career structure… … training would start for Masters at 21-30 years old, followed by simulator and manned model training [since]…the traditional career structure, where personnel are considered for Mate and Master after many years of experience, is failing to produce people with the right ‘mind-set’ to use the new technologies available most effectively.”

As can be seen, Burchett basically agreed with The Hongkong Salvage & Towage Co Ltd’s solution. Youth and inexperience are the essentials for creating a competent ASD operator.

There are many ways to train an ASD operator. A real tug is undoubtedly the ideal training tool. Training would be utterly realistic but would also be costly in operating and personnel expenses and lost opportunities for revenue-creating work. The consequences of operating errors by a trainee could also be huge. Finally, on-the-job training – a hit-and-miss procedure – may take years before an all-round competence is achieved.

Radio-controlled models hold promise as training tools, but here the operator is not part of the tug. He can only control a remote object floating in a pond and the tug moves and reacts unnaturally fast. Manned models were mentioned by Burchett and it is known that he has investigated their possibilities for some years. He may have found limitations that led him and Robert Allan to create the BRAtt, a small but completely equipped ASD tug with much of the heft and feel of a much-larger brother but little of its big brothers’ cost. The BRAtt’s primary purpose is training ASD operators, although it is a capable tug in many other ways.

Burchett also mentioned (but did not define) simulator training. Computer simulation varies tremendously in cost and quality. At one end are inexpensive PC-based computer “games” where everything happens on a computer monitor or TV screen and control of the simulated vessel is largely a function of agile fingers and thumbs. At the other extreme are elaborate simulators that cost millions, are extremely realistic, but cannot duplicate the thump and vibration of a tug coming alongside another vessel in the wash from its bow.

Finally, one must assume that some operating time on a BRAtt or a larger tug is essential, perhaps as part of a final, pre-graduation experience, before a trainee starts using what he/she has learned.

There are a goodly number of commercial, union-operated, and academic institutions that already provide most of the training described by Burchett. Their students could easily become part of a training program such as envisioned by Burchett. All that is needed is the creation of suitable overall curriculums and their sponsorship by towage companies and others.

Here, I’d like to offer a somewhat negative observation. The state and federal maritime academies would seem to be obvious sources of candidate trainees – basically, their graduates already have much of the necessary theoretical training but few have operated a tug and thus can be defined as “inexperienced.” And it is true that tugboat companies are hiring ever-larger numbers of academy graduates. However, many attendees do not intend to operate vessels and so do not bother to sit for licenses, instead preferring careers in marina management and other well-paying land based vocations. And there is disturbing evidence that about half of those graduates who go deep-sea quit after one year.

One final thought: Allow me to expand on Burchett’s definition of a suitable candidate as being between 21 and 30 years old. May I suggest that anybody of any age or gender could also be a suitable candidate as long as he/she is inexperienced in tug operation? And then let me suggest an unusual source of such candidates: the 9,000 members of the Military Sealift Command. Although many are already highly trained and quite a few are being trained (MSC encourages promotions via the hawse-pipe, perhaps because of the above-mentioned desertion by its academy graduates), most of its personnel qualify under Burchett’s description as being “inexperienced” in tug operation. (Trainees that recently went through MSC’s East Coast training school included a 47-year-old man starting out as an OS but aiming for master’s papers, a 59-year-old Filipino grandmother acquiring the skills to become a Steward/Utilityman, and an 80-year-old master mariner wanting just one more voyage before retiring.) A competent recruiter ought to be able to find some potential tugboat Mates and Masters among the “tug-inexperienced” but sea-experienced OS and AB ratings in the MSC.