Sunday, October 9, 2011

The state of Emergency Towing

1. The tug Hellas in happier times. Towing the Canadian Mariner on the St.Lawrence River, with the tug Avantage on the stern, off St-Fidèle, QC, 2007-08-17.

2. Would a rescue tug have made a difference? Abeille Languedoc, one of the French rescue tugs, seen here off St-Malo, 2000-05-17. Even bigger tugs have since been added to the fleet.

The Province of Nova Scotia has arrested the tug Hellas in Sydney, NS in order to secure a bond or other instrument to cover the potential cost of removing and remediating the wreck of the former Great Lakes bulk carrier Miner.

Hellas had the bulker under tow for Turkey to be scrapped when the line parted in bad weather and the ship ran ashore September 20 on Scatarie Island, at the northeast corner of Cape Breton Island. Since that time Mammoet, appointed as salvors by the tug owners, have removed some fuel oil and ballast waste from the ship.

The ship has received storm damage since grounding and there is now legitimate doubt about whether it can be removed intact, or will have to be broken up in situ.

The press and enthusiast websites are rife with speculation on the topic, and of course at this point it is a matter of wait and see. Press reports indicate that no pollution has been detected, and this is not surprising, since there was no fuel aboard save that to run a lighting generator.

The grounding site is a sensitive ecological zone and a Provincial nature reserve. Thus the Province of Nova Scotia has an interest beyond the normal Federal government interest.

I have written on the Shipfax blog about the Federal government's response.

Over the years a number of scrap tows have been lost en route and that should not be surprising, since the ships were old and not intended for deep sea voyages. That more of them have not been lost is perhaps a tribute to the tug crews. We do not know how many have been adrift for periods of time during the transatlantic voyages, but there have been several, including one in the Gulf of St.Lawrence last year. Most have been recovered and reached the destination - usually Turkey.

Some questions have been asked about tug availability during the time that Miner was adrift. The tug Hellas was not able to re-establish a tow line, and when the ship finally did go ashore, was not able to pull it off. Would a rescue tug have made a difference?

Today's reality is that "rescue" tugs do not exist in Canada. Tugs in eastern Canada are usually under contract and cannot drop what they are doing. Even if they could do so, they are not fitted for salvage work. There are also relatively few such tugs in the area. In fact there are only two deep sea tugs in eastern Canada: Ryan Leet (8800 bhp, based in Halifax) and Ocean Delta (5600 bhp, based in Quebec City). The normal 4,000 bhp to 5,000 bhp harbour tugs have some capability at sea, but would be hard pressed in severe conditions.

Even the multi-purpose anchor handling supply vessels used in the oil industry are rare in Nova Scotia these days. There are several working off Newfoundland, but they are many miles away from the Nova Scotia coast, and are fully booked.

In the UK right now there is a big hue and crew regarding the Coast Guard standby tugs. The government decided to withdraw this service as a cost cutting measure, and one of the tugs was sold. I hear that they have had second thoughts and may have put the cuts on hold now, due to public pressure. Nevertheless it is an expensive business to keep tugs on standby, ready for emergency. In the UK, France, Holland and Germany there are almost a dozen such tugs. Spain probably has almost as many itself (of varying sizes) but one has to remember that the density of ship traffic, particularly tankers, is intense in the Channel and North Sea, and the risk of accident is much higher. The history of accidents is also horrific, and the need for dedicated rescue tugs is hard to deny.

Here on the east coast of Canada ship traffic is minuscule compared to western Europe, and the chances of an accident with serious pollution or threat to life is much, much lower. Shipping activity is spread thinly over a wide area, with only a few "choke points" such as the Cabot Strait.

However should this be the basis for our government not providing some sort of emergency response capability?

It is all very well for the authorities to expect the towing tug to recover its lost tow, but in the event that that the tug itself is disabled, where would another tug come from? And how long would it take to get there?

What would happen in the event of a collision or grounding of a ship that had no attendant tug - who would respond?

In today's world the experienced salvage companies do not maintain salvage stations as they once did. They fly people and equipment to the site of casualties (and do so very quickly) but rely on locally sourced tugs when they need them, hired on a daily rate.

If a salvor needed a 10,000 bhp tug in Nova Scotia today, none would be available. Period. The nearest source might be Europe unless one of the oil industry vessels could be spared.

My proposal is that the Canadian government station salvage and rescue tugs in Sydney, NS and Yarmouth, NS, with a third tug based in Halifax and able to roam. It should be available for summer in the arctic, since there are no tugs there either (they had to send one from Quebec City two years ago.)

These should be dedicated 10,000 bhp plus tugs, able to tow anything that sails in Canadian waters and should not be sent off on hydrographic surveys or fishery patrols. If built to modern standards of energy efficiency they should not be costly to operate. Yes they will cost bucks to build, but no insurance is free.

I would also be surprised if any of them was called out in an emergency more than once a year. The question then is can they be justified or not. As insurance against the inevitable I say we can't afford not to have them.


1 comment:

  1. I hope this write up may come through to the people responsible for the protection of our coast and sailors when in need.