Tugboats Present Unseen Dangers to the Unwary
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
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
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
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
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