Limited Availability of Tugs for Emergencies on Canada's Pacific Coast

Source: Clear Seas

Published Jul 10, 2019 9:19 PM by The Maritime Executive

A research report on the Availability of Tugs of Opportunity in Canada’s Pacific Region published by Clear Seas Centre for Responsible Marine Shipping indicates that Canada’s West Coast faces gaps in the availability of commercial tugs to serve as emergency towing vessels for ships in distress.

The existing emergency towing system is based on a small number of dedicated high-powered emergency towing vessels or ETVs supported by so-called tugs of opportunity or commercial tugs that are not dedicated to rescue services. Such tugs are occasionally contracted to provide aid in the event of a ship emergency due to loss of engine power, steering or other cause.

“Tugs of opportunity offer an inadequate layer of protection for the size and type of ships now transiting our coast and ought to be complemented with a dedicated capability,” Clear Seas’ Executive Director, Peter Ellis, says. “Our research shows that tugs of opportunity have limited capabilities to respond in severe weather and do not have the power to tow larger ships that are more susceptible to greater drift speeds.” 

Another limitation of relying on the tugs of opportunity system is the distance between the areas these tugs most often travel as they engage in trade (near-shore waters) and the offshore areas where ships transit on their way to Canadian or U.S. ports. In some areas, a commercial tug responding to a ship in distress could take a day or more to reach that ship, says Ellis.

The study supports the Canadian Coast Guard’s lease of two dedicated ETVs, the Atlantic Eagle and Atlantic Raven, under the Oceans Protection Plan and their current deployment and patrol areas. Ships in distress in Canadian waters can also call upon an ETV stationed at Neah Bay, WA, in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The offshore areas where the Coast Guard’s dedicated ETVs are present are the most exposed to severe weather and furthest from commercial tug routes. The more sheltered near-shore areas, such as the Salish Sea and the area near Prince Rupert, already benefit from the routine proximity of many tugs of varying capability.

The report is one component in Clear Seas’ Marine Transportation Corridors initiative, building on previous work analyzing drift speeds for a range of different vessel types known to trade in Canadian waters, the routing and types of vessels transiting Canada’s Pacific coast and the necessary capacity required for an emergency towing response for the largest vessels.

Automatic identification system (AIS) data from 2016 were used to identify the tugs present in Canada’s Pacific Region. Because tug traffic patterns remain relatively consistent from year to year, the results from 2016 represent typical tug activity. Each tug’s location and route were determined from AIS data, and its capability was established based on its bollard pull, established from AIS data, research, or linear regression based on the tug’s horsepower.

The study was conducted before the 2019 deliveries of new escort tugs Orca and Grizzly to Vancouver, and Tsimshian Warrior to Prince Rupert. These newly-built tugs replace older tugs and each has a bollard pull greater than 80 metric tonnes, expanding overall fleet capability. However, it is assessed that these new tugs do not materially affect the conclusions of this report.

Clear Seas’ next phase of work in the Marine Transportation Corridors project will provide a multi-year analysis of ship traffic in Pacific coastal waters and identify areas on the Pacific coast that are sensitive to oil spills.

The report is available here.