City: UMR MM283
Vessel Name: Northern Lights II
Vessel Model: Bayliner 3870
Join Date: Jan 2013
Things to consider when near a tow
NEW ORLEANS -- A federal program to recruit more towboat pilots may have backfired by allowing thousands of novice captains to take over, contributing to a 25 percent increase in the number of accidents on the nation's rivers. An Associated Press review of Coast Guard records indicates the U.S. towboat fleet is increasingly piloted by captains who have spent as little as one year in the wheelhouse. ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE PHOTO In July 2008, the Tintomara shows bow damage from its collision with a towboat pushing a fuel oil barge and piloted by an apprentice. Some 283,000 gallons of fuel oil spilled, forcing the Coast Guard to close a 29-mile stretch of the Mississippi River. "The system has failed," said David Whitehurst, a boat captain and member of the board of directors for the National Mariners Association, based in Houma, La. "We have the highest horsepower in history, pushing more tonnage than ever in history, with the least knowledgeable personnel in history. It is a disaster. Look at the accidents we've had in the past few years." Said Richard Block, secretary of the mariners' group: "You can't learn to run a towing vessel overnight, and some of these companies are simply rushing it.'' Pushing or pulling barges piled high with freight, today's river towboats are the 18-wheelers of the waterways, transporting all manner of goods such as oil, grain and chemicals. At the start of the decade, the Coast Guard was under pressure from the shipping industry to revamp its training and licensing process because an older generation of captains in their 50s was beginning to retire, creating a labor shortage. The agency scrapped the time-honored "master's system" in which captains hand-selected rookies for pilot training. Instead, officials began allowing companies to pick trainees and pay for them to become "apprentice steersmen." Under the new system, someone can take the helm of a towboat after just a year, whereas the old arrangement required new pilots to spend years working their way up to captain. In 2003, just 16 pilots were issued new apprentice towing licenses. By 2007, that number ballooned to 871, and last year to 885. The new pilots come cheap, too. An apprentice earns about $175 a day; a top-grade pilot makes $450. But as the industry has added thousands of new pilots, the number of accidents involving towboats, barges and related vessels has jumped 25 percent, from 1,399 in 2003 to 1,754 in 2008. And it's not because more goods are getting shipped. Over that same span, cargo volumes rose by only about 3 percent. Capt. David Stalfort of the National Maritime Center, the Coast Guard's licensing branch, said the old master's licensing system had well-documented flaws. Before 1973, for example, towboat licenses were not even required. And even after that, licenses were handed out to pilots with limited training. "The apprentice mate is an effective program to get people into the program," Stalfort said. "I wouldn't characterize it as people coming off the street." But Whitehurst and others worry that the industry has become saturated with inexperienced pilots. "I started out here when I was 14 years old, and I'm 58 now, and I'm still learning," Whitehurst said. "This is hands-on. The stuff we do cannot be put in a book. "Over years of doing it, you develop a feel for what you're doing. You look at the surface of the water -- the water lilies, the debris floating down the river, the channel-marking buoys. It is like a book with open pages, and as the old-timers would say, you read it," he said. Some experts say there is not yet enough evidence to raise an alarm about pilots. "Ask me in 2011," said Richard Wells, a retired Coast Guard license examiner. "I think we'll have a better idea whether this change in licensing was positive or negative as far as the accident rate." Price of inexperience For towboat pilots, the cost of a mistake can be high. When a towboat commanded by a sleep-deprived novice pilot pushed a fuel barge in front of a tanker in the New Orleans harbor, the collision sliced the fuel barge in half and spilled 283,000 gallons of oil. The accident in the wee hours of July 23, 2008, caused one of the biggest oil spills in U.S. history, even though the tanker never ruptured. John Paul Bavaret II, the man in the wheelhouse that night, held only an apprentice pilot's license. There should have been a fully licensed pilot with him. Bavaret told the Coast Guard he had routinely piloted vessels on his own, and that it was common practice at the company he worked for, DRD Towing Co. of Harvey, La. Thomas Allegretti, the industry's leading lobbyist, characterized DRD as a rogue firm. In 2005, an apprentice pilot misread warnings on the Ohio River outside Pittsburgh, and his boat and six barges plunged over a dam. Four mariners were killed. In 2003, a novice pilot steered a towboat and its three tank barges into a railroad bridge on the Atchafalaya River in Louisiana, causing $210,000 in damage. After the New Orleans accident, Congress called for action, and the industry moved to close some of its own loopholes.
Ron on Northern Lights II
I don't like making plans for the day because the word "premeditated" gets thrown around in the courtroom.