by Raina Clark, from the March 2011 edition of MarineNews
I asked a friend at Seattle’s Pacific Maritime Institute (PMI) if she thought someone like me could successfully complete just one maneuvering task in their tug simulator after a couple hours of training. Ten years ago I’d run a cutter aground in San Francisco Bay when my Officer Candidate class was let loose in the Coast Guard Academy’s simulator, but that was the extent of my shiphandling experience, real or virtual. As a testament to her optimism, my friend scheduled me in PMI’s Z-drive tug simulator last January under the instruction of Captain Jeff Slesinger, author of ASD Tugs: Thrust and Azimuth, Learning to Drive a Z-drive. Since, no one was counting on me to actually pass a test, it didn’t matter how I did, I told myself. But when I walked into Jeff’s classroom, after official classes were over for the day, he commented on the performance anxiety I was obviously carrying with me.
“That’s what the simulator is for. It’s a safe place to make mistakes,” he told me. “If you’re not making mistakes in there, you’re not learning.”
Thirty-One Years in the Business
Jeff has been in the tug industry for thirty-one years and has worked at Western Towboat for the past 25. He has published two books on tug handling, owns his own business and does training at PMI.
“I first started to learn how to sail when I was seven. I was bitten by the bug right then and wanted to make my living running boats. I was involved with the sailing industry, teaching sailing and delivering sail boats.” But early on Jeff realized he wanted to run tugs. “In my early 20s I started accumulating sea time in order to get my license.” He started gathering time on fishing vessels. “Once I got enough I sat for my license and got my first official tug boat job in 1980.”
“When I came into the towing industry I’d already operated other vessels as a captain, although not any towing vessels. I spent about the first couple months as the mate. Then the captain I was with needed to go ashore to take care of his family. We had developed a very close relationship and he thought I had what it took to be a captain, so he recommended me and I slid into his job in relatively short order.”
“I was a full-time captain from 1980 through about 1998 and at that point I started to transition and assume more duties ashore, training people, managing day to day operations and that sort of thing.”
“I ended up training some of the captains here at Western Towboat as well as some captains and mates outside of Western Towboat. Early in 2005 I began an association with the Pacific Maritime Institute which
has been very good for me and I hope very good for them. I’ve been doing some customized training projects for them specifically oriented to operating tugs.”
“Delphi Maritime is my own company. Its basic focus is two things. One is the training side of things, developing onboard and shore-side training programs for tugs, and the other is a marine surveying and audit business. The training is very specific to boat handling, barge handling and watchstanding on tugs.”
A Changing Industry: From Barge Jockeys to Administrative Managers
Jeff gave me a basic primer on Z-drives in his empty classroom and told me my final task for the evening would be to bring a Z-drive tug alongside a tanker moving at about seven knots in the simulated waters outside a virtual Port of Seattle. Then I would aspire to make contact with the ship without causing any damage. It all sounded very impressive and I can understand why tug handling has an almost obsessive appeal. However, as Jeff explained later on, those who are attracted to the business because of this kind of action may get a reality check when they find out that driving the boat is actually a small part of being a tug captain.
His own infatuation with the business goes way back. “The guys and gals who handle tugboats, they held their boat handling art to a high level. To use not only the horsepower in the engine room, but the horsepower in the wheelhouse … I was just very smitten with that challenge and I’m still trying to figure out a way to perfect it.” The people who are attracted to the industry, he said, “want to drive the boat, everybody on there, whether it’s a deck hand, a mate or a captain. The truth of it is, now that piece of the job has really diminished. For many reasons and many of them are good reasons.”
The challenge that attracted many people to towing is the ability to manage risk in their jobs he said. “It’s not that we’re dare devils or that we seek to be reckless. But we like to be presented with a situation, like you were, coming alongside that ship,” Jeff told me. “There’s risk involved with that. When you were doing your exercise in the simulator, if that had been real-life, if you had made just one or two mistakes, you would have plowed into that ship, possibly causing damage. There have been cases with that maneuver you did, where people whack into the ship, maybe they bust something up, and then they can’t maneuver and they slide back down the hull and go underneath the stern of the ship. That kind of stuff has happened. That risk is always there.”
Fortunately, Jeff said, “the difference between 30 years ago and today is that we have more powerful tugs, better trained people and more consistent quality equipment, and that has built in an extra margin of safety. We’ve moved away from the edge.”
Along with the margin of safety, boat culture and the captain’s job description have also changed. “You know, when I first started out, we operated as independent units. It was very much a silo approach. When you went on a boat, especially as a captain, that was your tug and you had relatively limited communications back to shore. You basically went out and did your job and came back. As long as you did it successfully and didn’t have any problems, that’s all people expected and that’s all they really knew.”
“It was very boat-centric,” Jeff said. “There was no cohesiveness as an industry. You were out there doing your thing.”
But equipment improved and was more consistently maintained. Then procedures became more standardized within the industry as a whole. “That’s when you saw the development of safety management systems being implemented by towing companies.”
“It started to add an administrative aspect to being a tugboat captain. When I first started there wasn’t any administrative aspect. You were supposed to be a good barge jockey, a good boat handler and that was it. But as things progressed and the industry started to evolve there was more of an administrative aspect that started to creep into the job.”
Next the industry wanted to be more consistent in the way people were trained. “That training element then started to come aboard, which also became part of what a captain on a tug has to do these days. At first we just attempted to do this by throwing out topics which we knew people should know about: how to land a barge, how to handle a tug, how to land down river in fair tide, things like that. But we didn’t really give captains the tools to be good teachers or good trainers.”
“So that was the next phase.” The industry began to recognize that a lot was being asked of these captains. “They’re just not driving the boat any more. They’re actually business managers on board. They’re personnel managers. They head an administrative department and, oh by the way, now we’d also like them to lead the onboard training department. They were adding more and more layers of responsibilities, especially to captains.”
“So the difference between now and 30 years ago … nowadays the boat handling aspect is probably 10 percent of what a captain does.”
Tug Handling: A Practical Application
Before we stepped into the simulator, Jeff told me one of the first concepts I had to wrap my head around — driving the boat from the stern. Which way the back end should swing in a turn was my first consideration, he told me. Inside the simulator he had me do serpentines through a line of buoys, using a couple different methods to maneuver the tug with the thrusters. We started in my happy place with both thrusters pointed perpendicular, away from the boat, effectively creating an anchor of churning water underneath the tug.
“You can always come back here if you need to,” Jeff assured me.
With one thruster continuing to stabilize the boat this way, I used the other to gently push my stern to port or starboard, threading the boat in between the buoys. I sometimes had to hold my free hand in front of my face and move the heel of my palm to visualize which way the thruster needed to push the stern of the boat. Next Jeff showed me the feathering technique using both hands on the thrusters. From my happy place I moved both thrusters in slightly, toward parallel, and the boat moved forward. Move one thruster in farther than the other and the back end began to swing. The closer to parallel I moved the thrusters, the faster the scenery went by.
In the simulator, Jeff gave me just a few of the tricks of the trade which he said represented a gap in the nautical literature out there. “You can find lots of books written on the historical aspects of the marine industry, the theoretical aspects — the physics of how ships or tugs move and how they’re propelled, with very scientific definitions.” Jeff said both the books he’s written are intended to bridge the gap between the theoretical and how you actually apply that knowledge when you’re on the job.
His first book, Shiphandling with Tugs, “was almost a complete re-write of a book by George H. Reid. George Reid was a pioneer of this type of book for towing vessels. He wrote Primer of Towing. That was the first book for the towing industry that said ‘if you want to go alongside a barge, here’s how you do it, here’s how you play the wind, here’s how you put the rudder over,’ all that stuff. I was very grateful to be asked to re-write his book.”
Jeff’s most recent book, ASD Tugs: Thrust and Azimuth, Learning to Drive a Z-drive, focuses specifically on this modern type of tug. “It is the prevalent towing vessel produced in the world today. There’s really no book out there, that I’ve found, that serves as a guide to the learning process to be able to drive one of these things.” The book covers the basic elements of maneuvering an ASD tug, through steering, speed, turning, stopping, hovering and lateral movement and has 120 drawings of maneuvering principles.
“Again, I go back to the simulation that you did when you came alongside the ship. There are tons of books written that say when you come alongside a ship, certain hydrodynamic things are going to happen. When you come up to the bow of the ship you’re going to get pushed away. When you go to the stern of the ship you’re going to get sucked in. They’ll go through long diagrams and formulas to show you how all these hydrodynamics work. That’s an important piece of knowledge to have, there’s no doubt about it. But if I had just told you that as you were trying to come alongside that ship, it wouldn’t have helped you much. The next piece is to tell you little tricks that I have learned and others have learned about how to incorporate that knowledge into a practical application. So when I told you, pick a spot on the ship and look to the side and use that as your visual reference for whether you’re creeping up on the ship or back down on the ship … Now you’ve got this little reference point so you can automatically react to it. That’s the kind of thing that the two books I’ve written try to communicate.”
In the simulator I used the feathering technique Jeff taught me to maneuver the tug as a big red Canadian Steamship tanker appeared in my starboard windows. I tried to pace the tanker as Jeff instructed, picking the first S in “Steamship” as my point of reference. I started moving up too fast, so I feathered the thrusters back. Now we were too far behind. I tried to inch forward, more slowly this time, but passed my mark again. At this point I was too close to the tanker, so I angled away from the ship and started the dance all over.
“You’re doing well,” Jeff told me. “Of course the pilot is up on the tanker deck getting impatient,” he added, probably wanting to get home to family and out of the cold. That’s what the Association gets for hiring a magazine editor to pick up their pilot, I thought. In another few minutes I finally made gentle contact with the tanker hull and Jeff called it a success, since no one actually said anything about a time limit on the exercise.