U.S. operators warned not to use two-watch system in foreign waters

The U.S. Coast Guard is warning towing vessel operators not to accept overseas jobs if their boats don’t comply with international safety and manning rules.

Port state control inspectors recently have boosted enforcement of the three-watch system, navigation-equipment requirements, officer licensing and vessel safety documentation.

During a presentation at the State University of New York Maritime College’s Towing Forum in October, Coast Guard personnel noted an increase in the incidence of U.S.-flagged tugboats having their operation halted overseas. Capt. Eric P. Christensen, the chief of the Coast Guard’s Office of Vessel Activities, said American operators are asking for trouble if they voyage to Europe without a three-watch system.

Nations in Europe and elsewhere “are getting to the point where they are starting to look at vessels that are coming from the United States that they know are not manned properly," Christensen said. “You need to be cognizant of that."

The U.S. tugboat industry is accustomed to operating domestically with a two-watch system — each watch operating six hours on and six hours off. To combat crew fatigue and improve safety on overseas voyages, the latest International Convention on Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) memorandum calls for a three-watch system, which is more expensive for the operator.

Because they suspect that American operators will try to get away with a two-watch system, foreign port state control officers seem to be targeting U.S.-flagged vessels for boardings. When the inspections confirm the suspicions, the tugboats are not permitted to get back underway until the violations are corrected. The U.S. is also earning a bad reputation overseas, the Coast Guard said.

“This is starting to happen more often," Christensen said. The United States is “now ranked up there with Cambodia, Albania (and) Barbados in terms of detentions."

A three-watch system is generally required unless the vessel has a Safe Manning Document (SMD) that authorizes a different crewing level. Mariners are reminded that boats over 500 gross tons need to carry an SMD. Christensen said the document is recommended for vessels under 500 gross tons. It provides “an extra level of protection" when the crew runs into a disagreement with overseas inspectors, he said.

A vessel may obtain an SMD from the nearest Coast Guard Marine Safety detachment following a voluntary inspection. Operators should be aware that the document may require additional personnel for international voyages that would not be required for domestic-only voyages.

Generally, on international voyages, all wheelhouse personnel are required to have oceans endorsements. If an engineer is required in the safe manning certificate, that person must hold an appropriate credential. A helmsman cannot stand as his own lookout. All crew must have basic safety training.

Christensen noted that the recent problems overseas apply to uninspected towing vessels. When the U.S. begins mandatory inspection of tugboats in a few years, such disruptions are expected to ease. At present, there may not be an equivalent U.S. regulation to correspond to each of the latest requirements of the International Convention for SOLAS.

The Coast Guard has simple advice for companies accepting overseas jobs. If you know your vessel doesn’t meet the SOLAS regulations, don’t go.

“Once you’re over there and you don’t meet the qualifications, we can’t help you," Christensen said.

By Professional Mariner Staff