Partner, Tug & Barge Solutions
What is your general impression of the state of the inland marine industry today?
Depressed, but slowly recovering. Marine construction and dredging appears to have fared better than dry and liquid cargoes. I see more barges moving now in the GIWW and my customers report the same. If we can get oil back on track, we will see the smaller operators come back online as the larger ones get busier.
What is the most important issue facing inland marine transportation providers today?
I see two issues that are related – regulation and labor. Sub M is necessary but the timing is bad. With boats laid up, the crews have found other work. As the economy improves, the cash-strapped operators have to bring vessels online in a tougher regulatory climate. As they bring people onboard, they will have to ensure compliance for both their vessels and crews. Where will the supply of Sub M-educated mariners come from? If you are a small company without a TSMS, how will you come up to speed?
What can inland operators do better today – in any phase of their operations?
They can pay attention. A lot is changing and knowledge of the regulatory and industry-led changes will be the key to a successful operation. This also includes greater involvement with their crews to help them with the changes.
One of the big complaints that the inland (and workboat) industry has with today’s regulatory environment is that often – but not always – regulations made for blue water are pushed down onto the so-called brown water industry, without regard for whether they actually fit. How can the Coast Guard better package these regulatory burdens to more closely match the issues they are trying to address?
I think that the problem has always been there. The USCG always takes a one-size-fits-all approach. And it is always reactionary. They don’t have the manpower or the expertise to look at each part of the marine industry and see the differences. RADAR is a great example. A towboat hit a bridge and every one of us has to take a RADAR certification course designed for deep sea captains. The accident was in the mid-90s and we all still sweat the 5-year renewal because it doesn’t apply to the towing industry. More industry input would help but we don’t have the manpower either. So, we are stuck with ‘knee-jerk’ reaction regulations that don’t really apply, but that we have to comply with.
When we talk about safety, we must also talk about push boat crewing and watch schedules. What’s your opinion on the “6 on/6 off” & “4 on/8 off” debate?
Probably the simplest approach would be to modify the 12-hour rule. Let mariners work 8 hour watches. Industry trade groups do studies and tell mariners that 6 on/6 off gives you all the sleep that you need, but I disagree. Maybe it does in a lab that doesn’t roll, pitch and bump into things, but after 14 days of 6 on/6 off I had to sleep for a full day at home and it never felt like I caught up. The fatigue was noticeable by the end of the hitch.
If the push boat industry went to a ‘4 on / 8 off’ schedule, could they afford it?
A ‘4 on/8 off’ probably couldn’t work. Our boats can’t accommodate the additional personnel. And the companies couldn’t afford it. Companies are going to struggle with Sub M costs. Additional personnel for the companies that are crewing their boats appropriately now would be hard. It would be impossible for the companies that don’t even use a four-man crew for a 24-hour day. I also don’t believe that we have enough people to go to that type of schedule.
Subchapter M towboat rules: will it make industry safer or is it just another paper exercise (think ISM)?
Eventually. We have a big behavioral change to make first. And it includes boat owners, operators, dispatchers and crews. The oil side is better prepared, but they need a break after phasing in Sub M. For years they have absorbed additional costs heaped on by regulators and oil companies with no corresponding rate increase. Something has to give there. Rates need to rise to offset the burden. The dry side, along with marine construction and dredging, will struggle. They haven’t had to live with the requirements that the liquid side has and when you get to the small dredge companies, it’s still the wild west. The larger dredge companies are beginning to require more of their towing subcontractors, but it is still going to be hard. The margins are slim and it will be hard to raise rates. So this will take time. But, give it two COI cycles and the companies that have made it and their personnel are going to look very different from what they are today.
What’s the difference between AWO’s RCP and the Sub M rules? And, why does it matter?
The short answer is industry needed the compulsory route. AWO saw the hole in company safety early on and worked hard to get companies to recognize it too. Most of their members have done a good job of evolving within the RCP. But, AWO fell short of engaging the small companies that don’t necessarily have a business need for RCP. The cost of joining AWO keeps people out. They don’t understand the benefits. AWO has done a great job of hosting Sub M informational meetings and inviting non-members lately. I hope that they continue to do this. There is not a lot of difference between Sub M and RCP. But AWO through the RCP will help you grow. It would be very hard to make it on your own at this point in the game. The RCP accepted as TSMS is great for the AWO members but even RCP systems audited last year will have to be modified to meet Sub M. TVIB is doing a lot behind the scenes to ensure that they are ready and the auditors that I know are helping AWO member companies learn more about the regulation in order to successfully complete their next audit.
Some stakeholders feel like that the Sub M rules didn’t go far enough. What’s your take on that?
It’s a foundation. TSAC and the USCG did a good job. Each company can build on it to continuously improve. The TSMS option gives each company the flexibility to become better. And we don’t need more regulation to make us better. We just need a better attitude.
Another aspect of the SubM rules that will likely make an impact on industry is that while a lot of firms participated in the AWO RCP, just as many did not. Will this level the business playing field, and if so, how will it change the business?
I think Sub M will level the playing field. I know of companies that will cease to exist by next July. They don’t want to comply. I know of some that will use older equipment in tough shape until they can no longer do so. And I have spoken with companies that still don’t think it will happen or if it does that it won’t apply to them. We’ll lose a lot of vessels, but that’s okay. They are the ones that we need to lose. The remaining companies will offer safer, better vessels for our mariners to work on and consequently fewer boats (but the same amount of work) should allow rates to rise. And a more safety-oriented industry will force the barge owners in the marine construction/dredge side to change their way of doing business.
Do you see more consolidation for the inland marine business in the near future? If so, what’s driving that?
We are an industry made up of mom-and-pop businesses that do the work that the big guys don’t want. I think that there will be fewer, better-run companies. And sadly, it will be much more difficult to start a small towing company in the future. The average small towing company is started by a tug/towboat captain who thinks that he can do better if he owns the business, but has little business acumen or regulatory knowledge. The post-Sub M implementation small towing operator will have to know more and spend more. Gone are the days of picking up an old boat and going into business. A Sub M-compliant boat will not be cheap.
What keeps you up at night? What can be done about it?
Attitude. We have great boat operators in the towing industry. Most of them downplay their professional side and that’s a shame. Not to disparage deep sea captains, but our inland guys are hands-on operators – 1,100 foot tows in the canal, 40-barge tows on the river – those are highly developed skills. The tanker captains have a pilot to get them to sea, a pilot to get back in to port and a docking pilot to land them. Towing vessel operators do it all, every day. I wish that they would recognize that they are also marine professionals. A lot of guys on towboats and tugs feel that their lack of education keeps them from being true professionals (and they will put down the academy guys for their book knowledge), but it’s only their perception of themselves and their industry that keeps them down. If we can get them to view themselves in a new light (as the equal of the deep sea captain) then we would see changes within our industry.
Outside now – looking in – what would be your focus if you were the CEO of a large inland barge & push boat transportation concern?
Training and coaching. Exposure to more men and women from the academies for the hawsepipers and vice versa. We can all learn from each other. My turning point came at a gathering of Mass. Maritime Alumni that I was invited to. I was impressed as they all talked about their lives at sea and the cool places and foreign ports that they had been to. Then someone asked me what I did and when I told them I ran the Erie Canal they all fell silent. That was a “cool, foreign place” that they could never go and they wanted to know more. We shared sea stories for hours after that. There was mutual respect. The brown water/blue water line seems to divide two very different worlds but we have a lot in common and a better understanding of each other would be very beneficial. They have lived through a lot of what the brown water people are about to go through. We should all strive to be the best that we can be and continuously learn about our profession.
(As published in the April 2017 edition of Marine News)