Prepping For Duty:High Tech Training for State-of-the-Art ATB

Wednesday, September 11, 2002
Just one look at the tug Sea Reliance and its companion barge 550-1 shows that Marine Transport Corp., a Crowley Maritime Corporation company, spared no effort to make this ATB (articulated tug barge) and barge a state-of-the-art workboat. Its twin Caterpillar 12-cylinder diesel engines put out a combined total of 9,280 hp allowing for a sustained speed of 12-knots with a full load of 155,000 barrels of petroleum. The barge's cargo-handling systems, with inert gas blanketing and hydraulics, are the equal of most tankers. The technology is matched only by the accommodations and amenities, including single staterooms and private showers, which every crewmember greatly appreciates. The working conditions have created a buzz in the industry, keeping Manager of ATB Operations Captain Igor Loch Jr.'s cell phone busy as he shuttles between the office and the boat. "Tug people have heard about the boats, and they want to come and work here," said Loch, who is putting together crews. "We're getting calls from people with 25 years of towing experience. We have captains working as chief mates. We have seasoned maritime personnel here for the adventure of working with state-of-the-art equipment, and that gives us the pick of people with towing experience."

The boat that created the buzz was designed by Vessel Management Services (VMS), Crowley's Seattle, Wash.-based subsidiary. VMS designs, engineers, builds and maintains ownership of new vessels for charter. The boat and barge, built by Halter Marine at its Moss Point and Port Bienville, Miss., shipyards, respectively, have an articulated or hinged connection system that allows movement as a unit in the thwartship (rolling motion) on one axis and independently in the fore and aft pitching motion. The strength of the connection, two 50-in. rams from the tug that insert themselves into connectors in the barge, will enable the tug to push the barge in virtually any conditions at sea. Additionally, the independent pitching motion of the tug and barge allows the tug's rudders and propellers to remain immersed in the water, allowing a much greater degree of control than with a conventional vessel. "With conventional notch barges, tugs push in the open seas if the weather is good," Loch said. "However, with an ATB design such as the Sea Reliance, the tug always pushes. You can make better time - 12 knots instead of six or seven - and weather is less of a problem. There's a lot less maintenance, and in port, you can disconnect the tug and fuel it while the barge is being loaded or unloaded. It's very economical." "While a tanker can hold 250,000 to 340,000 barrels of product, many cannot fully utilize this capacity due to depth constrains or refinery/terminal constraints," said Steven Collar, Vice President, Business Development and project manager for the ATBs. "Our 155,000-barrel payload is more in line with actual cargo loads. At 12 knots, our top speed is not far from the 14 to 16 knots of tankers, and we can tie up in a quarter to a third of the time. Our systems are designed to load or pump off 20,000 barrels per hour, and our independent stripping systems make sure all tanks, pipelines and pump wells are totally empty so we don't have to go to the cleaning dock. With the tug able to refuel during pumping, we really minimize time in port." The Sea Reliance and its sister tug Sound Reliance, along with its companion barge, are also being built in Mississippi by Halter Marine. Two more tugs and barges being built by The Manitowoc Company for service later this year. The barges are double-hulled to comply with the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. Designers used a safe-hull analysis by the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS) to determine the areas of the boat and barge that would see the highest structural stress both at sea and in port. Those areas were beefed up for added strength. This approach represents a vision by both the Crowley organization and its customers. "We spoke at great length with our customers over the past several years, and they confirmed a lot of what we thought," Collar said. "The inert gas system was a critical component of the entire system for them, and they also liked the radar gauging for the cargo tanks and the automatic ballast gauging. The Person in Charge (PIC) can see any tank at any time, and we have alarms for high and high-high levels."

However, the boat's physical qualities only scratch the surface of the effort. MTC has put into training the crews, which number seven, including officers. Starting in February 2002, MTC initiated the hiring of officers and crew, and in March, the company began sending them to train at the Seaman's International Union school at the Paul Hall Maritime Center, Piney Point, MD. Training included PIC) for all crew, dangerous cargo transfer, Red Cross CPR, fast-rescue boat operations, firefighting, GMDSS and bridge management. Even captains got refresher courses in bridge management. "PIC training for everyone, is unusual," Loch noted. "We felt it was important give everyone PIC training, including the AB's because with a small crew, you never know what kind of emergency situation will come up. Everybody needs to be able to be prepared to take charge to protect lives, the cargo and the vessel." School Days To make the most effective use of the ATBs' new technology, MTC took a bold step by hiring crew early and putting them through extensive training at Piney Point. The level of training went above and beyond anything that MTC's customers required, and the time given (with full pay) for officers and crew to learn the vessels is above and beyond industry standards. "On the ATBs we do a lot of cross-training because of the small crews and need for versatility," Loch said. "But this is a new step in towing, and the boat and barge have a lot of redundant systems, and they're pretty complex. There are nine engines on the barge, plus all the alarms and radar gauges. Everything will run under ISM, which is only required for big ships, and we want to phase in ISO 14000 (Environment Standards) certification from our present ISO 9000 (Quality Standards) certification. That meant putting the money up front with training." The training was considered particularly important for the first crews. As much as MTC will try to keep them together, members of the first class will eventually be promoted or transferred to the three other ATBs going into service, and their training and on-the-job experience will help them train new crewmembers.

One of the more intensive sessions at Piney Point was the 70 hours on navigation and distress systems, including the vessel traffic management system. "It was extremely intense," said Captain Brad Wheeler of American Service Technology, Inc., who coordinated the training program and simulator sessions for the Sea Reliance crews. "The people got into much more than they'd ever want, but theory is the key. You use the navigation and communication systems to get in and out of port, for bridge-to-bridge traffic, for search-and-rescue and so on. By having all this training, the boat can go anywhere in the world because of its legal global reach."

Some of the more esoteric points covered in this part of training included understanding how HF (high frequency) radio waves depend on the solar cycle and time of year and day for getting signals to their targets. They also learned the various dialing strings for using the satellite system and the ranges of various radio systems for sending distress signals on the frequency needed from any point from land. "This was all new for tug-and-barge people," Wheeler said, "but they all became professional radio operators after taking this course." Everyone also took a 32-hour course on Zodiac fast-rescue boats. The course included procedures for launching to recover a person overboard, covering search patterns and recovering conscious and unconscious personnel. It also covered personnel transfers from sinking ships to a crewmember's own ship and how to beach a rescue boat in heavy surf during severe weather conditions. PIC training for tankerman/barge personnel included courses on liquid cargo transfer, which incorporated an immense amount of information, according to Wheeler, such as load and discharge operations, ballast, vapor recovery and the inert gas blanket system.

The training included simulator time, where crewmembers went through different modes of discharge and load and discharge planning. Bridge management training combined Federal, ISO and ISM regulations with specific MTC policies for safe navigation, showing crewmembers how they could use all equipment and personnel assets to fulfill STCW requirements. The 40-hour course included exercises that incorporated failures and emergencies to forge the ability for crewmembers to work as a team. "With small crews, safe navigation relies on everyone working as a team, and that means everyone has to see the big picture and develop a good sense of situation awareness," Wheeler noted. Socialization Schooling, Loch pointed out, was more than an educational experience. "We wanted to let everyone get used to working with each other and become more comfortable in the group," he said. "Then, we wanted that to carryover onto the boat as the guys began to learn all about the boat and barge and begin to settle in."

Captain Charles E. Tuck, who shares master's duties with Captain Bruce Comiskey, is enthused about working with familiar faces and with the camaraderie. "We've gotten the jump by getting good people," he said. "I worked with Rob (Rob Roberts, Second Mate) when he was a harbor pilot, and I knew Dave Quiepo, our other second mate from talking to him on the radio when he worked for another company. I worked with Wes (John Wesley Bertrand, First Mate) and knew his abilities." But all the relationships kicked in at school. "Once we went to school," Tuck said, "I got to know all of them better and realized what a great bunch of guys we have. There is a hierarchy, but we're family, and that's what it's all about on tugs. We're doing more work with fewer men, and that means they're going to be doing a lot together. With the schooling and the work on the boat, we're developing the team concept we'll need to succeed." As construction neared completion for the tug and barge, members of both crews gathered at the shipyard in Pascagoula for on-board training, familiarizing themselves with the tug and the barge.

While Chief Engineers Scooter Ashwood and Joe Kadak tested the engines and pumping systems on the boat, the mates and AB/tankermen learned the barge's systems from Dave Debruler from VMS. He explained in minute detail the water, sewage and ballast systems as well as all the alarm systems and radar gauging systems on the barge. Explanations were followed by hands-on trial runs wherever possible. In most cases, crewmembers worked around shipyard crews doing the final construction work. The learning sessions were enhanced by visits from the manufacturers of all the equipment and systems. They further explained the many details and worked with crewmembers and officers alike to make sure everyone understood them. After he explained the various systems, they "walked the valves" in teams of two and three, and they were shown how to operate the barge's inert gas system and its various hydraulic systems. The walkthroughs and the days spent together on the vessels helped build professional familiarity. Valve Walkers Roberts and Al Costner, who will be First Mate on the Sound Reliance, shared professional insights as well as the learning experience on one of their valve walks. "We tried to set up a few scenarios for cargo moves, just like we'd have once we're on the job, and walk the valves to see where everything is and how it would work," Roberts said. "We pulled from the Number Six starboard tank using the outboard port pump to discharge from the aft header on the port side. We chose to use different lines and pumps just to the routes to take and get a better knowledge of the system." "We walked around and shut all the valves, just like we would do for loading," Costner said. "It took about 10 minutes, and there were no surprises. This one was easier because we remembered locations from our last scenario. We just have to keep on testing ourselves by going through scenarios and correcting our own mistakes." Gaining familiarity helped with other systems. Looking over the inert gas blanketing system, Bertrand pointed out the scrubbers take out carbon and create the blankets of 3 percent to 7 percent oxygen, preventing a combustible atmosphere that could cause a fire.

"This is just like a system on a tanker," he noted. "And the way it's set up, you can't run all the redundant systems together by accident; it's idiot-proof." Inspecting the empty tanks and looking at all the discharge lines was intimidating at first, noted Larry Soulier, an AB/Tankerman, but the repeated inspections simplified the systems and even helped crewmembers find discrepancies, such as mismarked valves. "When we caught them, we took them to Dave to have them noted," Soulier said. "We were told to keep a critical eye and to make any suggestions that we thought could improve our working conditions. As we did that, the barge got simpler by the minute." "When you can take the time to bond with your barge, you can really make friends with it," Debruler observed. In the engine room back on the tug, Ashwood and Kadak not only familiarized themselves with the setup, they also spent time teaching their shipmates some of the basic operations in case of an emergency.

"I was really impressed with the work and the learning," Tuck said. "We started with 12-hour days because these guys wanted to do everything they could to prepare. As they got on with the process, they really wanted to get the tanks loaded and get out to sea." Appreciable Amenities Out at sea, the crew is living in tugboat luxury. There is a stateroom with a private head and shower for each, and that nicety, alone, could help perpetuate the family feeling. "As much as we all like each other, sometimes you just want to go to your own room at the end of your watch and shut the door for a while," Bertrand said. "All the rooms have a lot space, and they're already wired for television and radio - although everybody hooks up their stuff anyway." The showers also rate a big plus. "There's no waiting now," Bertrand added. "No more worries about running down the hall, wrapped in your towel and watching somebody else get in there ahead of you." Bertrand believes he is getting in on the wave of the future. "Coastwise work will be on smaller units with smaller crews and more automated equipment," he said. "The first thing Captain Loch told me was how the boat and barge were set up and how MTC wanted to put together a family-type environment where everyone would work together. I was definitely excited about it. This is really nice equipment, and the effort they put into training us is something new. We had all our classroom work done before we saw the boat - and the boat has been everything we expected. You got to love it; this is the place to be."

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