Side bitt or shoulder bitt? Mariners invited to standardize towing terms

When is a quarter bitt a forward quarter bitt? Never, according to Capt. Eric Johansson, a third-generation tugboater and, since 1994, a professor at State University of New York Maritime College.

Founder of the college's annual Towing Forum, Johansson has been sifting through the chaotic lexicon of tugboat terminology and definitions over the past two years with a view to standardizing the nomenclature.


{C} A line is tied to a button bitt on the deck of this towboat and to a bollard on the dock. Forward, there is a staple and a bow H bitt. (Brian Gauvin photo)

"I was doing a safety audit on board a vessel, and the captain was screaming at the deck hand to make a line fast on the quarter bitt. So the guy goes back aft and the captain goes, 'No, you idiot, the forward quarter bitt.' Well, there are no forward quarter bitts. Quarter bitts are at the tug's quarter."

The purpose of naming something is to give it a clear designation to distinguish it from other things. "Ambiguity is downright dangerous in any situation and a formidable link in the error chain," Johansson said.

Regional and cultural differences in identifying equipment, locations and command orders on board tugboats can lead to ambiguity. Taken to an extreme, the lack of clarity can be calamitous.

In May 2008, SUNY Maritime College held a meeting to begin developing a standardization for towing nomenclature. The gathering included representatives from most of the major U.S. towing companies on the East and Gulf coasts. Also attending were people from Maine Maritime Academy, Massachusetts Maritime Academy, the National Maritime Center, the United States Merchant Marine Academy and the U.S. Coast Guard.


{C} An upper wheelhouse offers the pilot a bird's-eye view of the water. (Brian Gauvin photo)

"I thought, well, let me come up with something to minimize ambiguity," said Johansson. "Kirby (Inland Marine) has done a very nice job of towboat nomenclature. We took their model and applied it to tugboats."

In October 2010, at the 11th annual Towing Forum, Johansson presented the result of the project to date in a paper entitled "Standardization of Towing Nomenclature."

"The reason I did this is for safety," said Johansson. "Over the years I've found that so many different people have so many different names for so many different parts of a vessel that it was, just, dangerous. And in reading books about the towing industry, there were a lot of issues with that as well."

Forepeak, staple, warping head

A few of the terms adopted by consensus over the course of the project include forepeak instead of forword hold; bitt rather than bollard (on board the vessel); bollard over bitt (on the dock); staple as opposed to bull nose, donut or D-ring; warping head in place of cat's head or gypsy head; and lazaret instead of steering flat.

The arched bow staple viewed through the upper half of the bow H bitt. (Brian Gauvin photo)

Definitions for such items as bulwark, watertight door, porthole, hatch, hatch coaming, cleat, padeye, sheave, tow span, capstan, dog house, whiskey locker, the different types of winches and more, were agreed upon and adopted.

What room? Which deck?

Rendering most of the terms and definitions down to one best choice was, for the most part, smooth sailing, according to Johansson.

However, defining a room that housed an articulating device (ATB) or integrated (ITB) configuration required some discussion. The group adopted the broad and generic term coupler room, discarding the brand specific Intercon or JAK room and two other coupling systems in common usage, Bludworth and Artubar.

Defining and numbering decks proved to be a bear of a challenge, according to Johansson. "People were unsure if the main deck is the 01 deck or 00 deck. The main deck is the 00 deck, the first deck above the waterline. That took some time to get everybody to agree to."

'Go out on the port quarter'

It would seem that stories about a vessel's quarter and the resulting confusion abound. In January, Johansson gave a presentation of the "Standardization of Towing Nomenclature" at G & H Towing in Galveston, Texas. The company's director of marine operations, Steve Huttman, after describing Johansson's presentation as "outstanding," related his own embarrassing encounter with a misguided captain.


{C} The coupler room with Intercon system aboard an articulated tug barge (ATB), aft of the forward hold. (Brian Gauvin photo)

"When I started working here as a mate at G & H Towing 13 years ago, a captain told me to go out on the port quarter and grab a line. After my 21 years in the Coast Guard, I thought I knew where the quarter was. The captain yelled from the wheelhouse (asking) didn't I know where the quarter was? That's when he informed me that he wanted the line on the forward quarter!"

Side bitt vs. shoulder bitt

Which bitts are which is an issue where the East and West coasts may never meet. "This may become a right coast/left coast thing," said Johansson. For example, the committee, primarily East and Gulf coast participants, settled on side bitt to define the second bitt along from the stem of the tug. On the West Coast, that bitt is also called a shoulder bitt.

For the sake of consistency, Johansson is willing to go with shoulder bitt. "To keep everyone happy I could give up side bitt. But I put it to the group and they were pretty set on side bitt," he said.

"At G & H we called them shoulder bitts," said Huttman. "Now, with Eric's standardized nomenclature, we will call them side bitts."

More bitts of knowledge

The bitts lineup, as arrived at by the committee and named from stem to stern is — stem, button, side, amidships and quarter bitts. A bow H bitt and a stern H bitt were left where they belong.

"We owe it to our personnel to give them a standardized set of terms and definitions to work from," said Huttman. "Eric's addressing the problem we have as a segmented industry. We need to all be using the same terminology on the boats and for filing reports. What is called one thing here is called something completely different in another part of the country."


{C} A line runs through a stern staple to the stern H bitt on a towboat's afterdeck. (Brian Gauvin photo)

Johansson is an unrepentant enthusiast on the subject of standardizing towing nomenclature. He is keeping the process open, inviting the industry to the Towing Forum in October. Additions, clarifications, replacements and comments will be discussed, rejected, adopted or set aside for another year.

"My goal is to provide a standard that all schools that teach the towing industry teach the same things, so that we're not all teaching different things. That would be unproductive," Johansson said. He hopes the companies adopt the standard definitions and terminology in "Standardization of Towing Nomenclature."

A stem bitt forward of a bow H bitt. (Brian Gauvin photo)

Johansson always starts with the premise, "If you're the only one calling something something, then get over it and give it up."

By Professional Mariner Staff