At a recent maritime law seminar, a senior Coast Guard inspector made a candid admission: Coast Guard personnel often “freak out,” he said, when they are transferred from blue-water to brown-water postings. That’s because the practices are so different.
One example the speaker gave concerned groundings. At sea, a grounding is a major (and, it is hoped, rare) emergency that calls for crisis management, a detailed report and extensive after-action analysis. With today’s navigational tools and mapping, blue-water groundings usually (though not always) mean navigational error.
On the rivers, by contrast, groundings happen much more frequently, especially in low water. Although there are many excellent river pilots and captains, groundings are more of a possibility than at sea, since channels continually shift, and charts must be constantly updated. The vast majority are minor affairs. The Coast Guard allows a towboat a “one-strike” attempt to get off under its own power without having to file a report later.
Firefighting also calls for different responses at sea versus on the inland waterways. That’s why the barge industry’s representatives sought to mitigate Coast Guard firefighting regulations that were transferred wholesale from a blue-water context to brown-water without adequately considering the different environments.
At sea, crews have no choice but to aggressively fight a fire to the finish. On the inland waterways, where boats are never far from shore, prudence and good practice can often dictate prioritizing crew safety over equipment and property. Equipment and training requirements that make sense at sea often look quite different on an inland towboat, where a crew wouldn’t necessarily stay aboard to fight a fire, possibly endangering lives in the process, if it had the option of disembarking to safety.
Safety is just as much of a concern on the inland waterways as at sea, and inland towing companies are second to none in their safety efforts. But the correct measures to maximize safety are often different on the waterways than they are at sea. By conducting “brown-water universities” for Coast Guard personnel, barge industry members have helped to familiarize them with brown-water best practices. The next one is scheduled to take place October 29–31 in the Houston area (WJ, September 16).
Since inland vessels make up the vast majority of all U.S.-flagged vessels, it’s long past the time when blue-water practices should be regarded as the standard for brown-water operations. The best solution is for all Coast Guard members to be so well-acquainted with brown-water operations that there is never any occasion for a “freak-out.”