pre departure checklist
water sense
playing safe on water
avoiding tugs & barges
fog at sea
distress signals at sea
sitting out a hurricane
holing up for a hurricane
heavy weather sailing
fire on board
towing and salvage
US salvage contract

avoiding tugs and barges

To the uninitiated,  it might be difficult to understand how a sober and otherwise competent skipper could collide with a tug and barge. The massive bulk of most barges means that even a distracted skipper should notice them approaching (although some skippers don't). And tugs, with their broad beams and deep displacement hulls, seem to plod through the water like giant seagoing turtles, which means a skipper should have plenty of time to get out of their way.

But tugs and barges aren't like other boats. Offshore, a tug and barge may be separated by as much as a 1/2 mile, with the massive steel towing cable hidden beneath the water. And in narrow waterways, a tug's deep draft, wide beam, and powerful engine can create a tremendous suction around the hull as water is pulled into the props. This suction can temporarily reduce a canal's depth by as much as a foot. When you consider that tugs and barges must wind their way through narrow rivers and canals that were never intended for anything more than tiny canal boats, it suddenly becomes easier to understand why collisions occur.

Tugs and Barges Offshore
"A most unusual sensation," was how the skipper of a 32' sailboat described the way it felt to tack behind a tug and then stop abruptly in 48' of water. There was a "scraping sound" coming from somewhere down by the keel, and his first reaction was that he had hit a submarine. But as the boat spun around he glanced over his shoulder and saw a barge off in the distance heading directly toward him. Scary? You bet. In a matter of seconds he would be run down by a barge, unless the steel cable cut his keel in half first.

In this case, the skipper was lucky. A deckhand on the tug had seen what was happening and immediately alerted the bridge. By putting the tug's gears in neutral, the cable went slack and freed the sailboat in time to avoid a collision with the barge. A damage survey later indicated that the 1-1/2" cable had been well on its way - within millimetres - of sawing completely through the fibreglass surrounding the keel.

Bruce Law, one of the owners of Allied Towing in Norfolk, VA, says that crossing over tow cables is the number on cause of serious collisions between recreational boats and tugs. Law says that a skipper involved in a collision typically never realizes that the "big ugly box" is connected to the tug via a thick steel cable. He says these cables can be up to 3" in diameter and are capable of sawing boats in half in a matter of seconds.

On inland waters, where the tug and barge may be relatively close together, the cable may be only a few feet beneath the waves. At sea, where the distance between the tug and barge may be as much as 1/2 mile, a cable could be 100' underwater or close to the surface, since the cable acts like a shock absorber in heavy seas and is constantly rising and dropping. Skippers of small boats should never attempt to cross a tug's wake without first checking to make sure that there is not a barge somewhere off in the distance.

Narrow Waterways and Canals
The skipper of the 36' sailboat inched his boat further to port to try and see beyond the series of barges and tow boats he had been following in the narrow canal. Not caring much for the smell of diesel fumes or the sight of the barges' rust streaked stern, he decided to pass.

Before passing, the skipper tried raising the tow boat's captain several times on channel 16. No answer. He then switched to channel 68, but again, his calls raised only silence. He tried signalling, but the steady drone of the massive diesels drowned out his feeble air horn.

The skipper threw the helm over, kicked the throttle forward, and began inching past the line of elephantine barges. When he was abeam of one of the barges, his boat and the barge began mysteriously edging toward each other. He manoeuvred to give it more room and abruptly grounded. The larger vessel scraped the side of his sailboat's hull doing considerable damage.

When his VHF and whistle signals went unanswered, the impatient skipper should have waited for open water before attempting to pass. Many canals were designed years ago by engineers who obviously never anticipated today's mammoth tow boats and barges. The sailboat and barges began "mysteriously" edging toward each other because of the inevitable suction created by the deep draft tow boat and barges moving through the shallow, narrow canal. One former tugboat captain said he has seen the water level drop as much as a foot in narrow canals, as water was pulled into the tug's prop. But while this phenomenon is a fact of life for towboat captains, it can certainly be a surprise to skippers of small boats.

Tow boat captains are familiar with manoeuvring in restricted waters and the sailboat skipper was correct to have tried to raise him on the VHF before passing. His mistake was trying to raise the skipper on channel 16; tow boat and most other commercial captains do their communicating on channel 13.

Rivers and Currents
As usual, the local fishing tournament attracted hordes of small boats to the river. Trophies don't usually go to the timid, so the skipper and his partner anchored their bass boat in a favored spot that was uncomfortably close to the channel near a sharp bend in the river.

After only a few minutes of fishing, the skipper spotted and empty barge poking its gigantic bow around the bend. At first he thought the barge was heading over toward the beach, but a few seconds later it began swinging directly at his anchored boat. The two men stared briefly at the towering wall of steel moving ominously toward them before frantically trying to start the engine. It coughed a few times, sputtered, and quit. The skipper and his fishing buddy then dove overboard shortly before their boat was run down. Both men had no trouble reaching shore.

The tug's captain used the wind, which was blowing 25-30 knots that day, and the current to "flank" the barge through the tight bend in the river. It appeared to the men on the smaller boat that the wind had caught the barge's bow and swung it too far toward the middle of the river. The tug's captain, however, claimed he was right where he wanted to be, and the small fishing boat had left him no room to manoeuvre.

The sheer size and number of barges that must be manoeuvred through currents and narrow bends by a tug's pilot boggles the mind. Course changes as well as starting and stopping take time and require some planning. Rule nine of the Navigation Rules states that, "A vessel of less than 20 meters in length or a sailing vessel shall not impede the passage of a vessel which can safely navigate only within a narrow channel or fairway." Certainly recreational boats are much more manoeuvrable and should give the tugs and barges a lot of room.

Recognizing Lights on Tugs and Barges
"I was heading for Cobb Island (on the Potomac River) when I saw this tug coming. I thought I was on a safe course to pass when I lost his green running light. I realized he was getting close and swung to starboard, which turned out to be the wrong direction. I went across his bow and got hit right in the middle of my boat."

With all there is to remember these days, it isn't easy to learn the various light configurations for tugs and barges. The masthead, stern, and yellow towing lights are configured differently to indicate towing distance, the size of the tug and/or barge, and whether it is behind, ahead of, or beside the tug. (And if you're on the Mississippi River, the rules for lights are different on either side of the Huey P. Long Bridge.)

But throwing up your hands and not bothering to learn the light configurations for tugs and barges is a dangerous mistake. In the claim above, the skipper recognized just one of the lights - the starboard light - amid all of the other lights on the tug. Although he could see the lights, he had no idea what they meant. Had the skipper been able to recognize the lights, he would have known where the tug was headed and that it was pushing a barge. Since he couldn't discern the light configurations, he should have steered well away from the tug.