Subchapter M

What’s Next For Subchapter M Compliance?

As the halfway point of the four-year Subchapter M phase-in period for certificates of inspection approaches, the U.S. Coast Guard is ramping up enforcement efforts, and others are planning for upcoming required drydock hull inspections.

By July 20, half of the towing vessels owned and operated by a company with multiple vessels are required to have their certificates of inspection. This year is also the deadline for those owning and operating a single vessel. Cmdr. Andrew Bender, supervisor of the U.S. Coast Guard Towing Vessel National Center of Expertise (TVNCOE) in Paducah, Ky., said some companies have some catching up to do.

“When we look at the fleet nationally, only 28 percent have met the requirement to have a COI, just over half of the 50 percent required by July 20, 2020,” he said.

Nearly 1,600 vessels have COIs. “Of those, 72 percent, or 1,164 vessels, are using the Towing Safety Management System (TSMS) compliance option,” Bender said.


The Coast Guard’s certificate of inspection phase-in enforcement policy letter has been in effect since February 20, outlining the Coast Guard’s enforcement posture for the four-year phase-in. It requires the immediate enforcement of at least 25 percent of vessels having certificates of inspection. Companies not meeting the requirement should expect to hear from the local Coast Guard’s Officer-in-Charge, Marine Inspection (OCMI) to discuss the finding, Bender said.

“Following the discussion, the OCMI will likely issue a deficiency (CG-835V) directing the vessel to be ready for inspection within 90 days,” Bender said. “If the vessel doesn’t meet the 90-day requirement, the company will be directed to secure operations of the vessel until the COI is completed.”

Bender noted that appeals regarding these and other issued deficiencies should follow procedures already laid out within 46 CFR 1.03.

Bender pointed out that all vessels were required to be in compliance with Subchapter M as of July 2018, whether or not they have a COI. The Coast Guard is already issuing deficiencies to vessels not in compliance and will continue to do so during the phase-in process, he said.

“If a company has compliance questions or concerns, we highly encourage them to work with the local OCMI to find resolution, and certainly the TVNCOE is available as well,” Bender said.

He also pointed out online job aids available to the Coast Guard, industry and third-party organizations, including TugSafe, an online survey checklist generator, and TugSafe Central, the online hub for Subchapter M references. Additionally, he said, the TVNCOE has recently developed a customizable Subchapter M training curriculum. The course modules and steps for application are available on the TVNCOE website.

Bender believes the Subchapter M emphasis on safety is having results.

“All indications are that the towing vessel industry has already improved safety due to their efforts to prepare for Coast Guard certification in the years leading up to implementation of Subchapter M,” he said. “Since 2018, the Coast Guard has validated compliance of nearly 1,600 now-certified vessels through Coast Guard inspection and TPO surveys and audits of those vessels. Additionally, TPOs have certified 240 Safety Management Systems covering nearly 3,400 vessels, indicating that a significant number of companies and their crews have embraced safety culture. We’ll look to substantiate the true effectiveness following full implementation of the COI phase-in.”


Lee Nelson, president of Henderson, Ky.-based ITOW, a Coast Guard-approved third-party organization that formed in October, said he has performed about 30 inspections so far through survey and audit or gap analysis. He urged vessel owners and operators not to wait until the last minute to be in compliance.

“Whether they chose the TSMS option or the Coast Guard option, everybody has to do their due diligence or we’re going to end up backlogged significantly,” he said.

He said he hopes the Coast Guard announcing its enforcement efforts last month will be the impetus some companies need to move forward more quickly.

“Lots of folks are not doing anything,” he said. “They don’t realize the importance of getting a COI so they don’t slow everybody down.”

Some of those steps need to be decided before an inspector steps on board, he said. “In my opinion, the inspection process all starts with the owner and operator. They have to be ready.”

Drydock Repairs

Ron Harrison, port captain and Subchapter M coordinator for Bellaire Harbor Services LLC of Bellaire, Ohio, said vessel owners and operators largely haven’t turned their attention yet to considering drydock hull inspections, required within five years of COI for freshwater vessels under Subchapter M.

“We’re being proactive,” he said of the company’s own vessels, adding that Bellaire is going ahead and putting them up on drydock so that it is prepared when other companies need space.

“We’re just going to try to be ahead of the curve instead of waiting for it,” Harrison said.

As some companies have wondered where to place most of their emphasis, Harrison talked about the importance of hull integrity and inspection below the waterline. “That’s what we’re going to be concentrating on on our vessels and other people’s vessels as well,” he said.

He also provided some examples of specific points of concern for those assessing the vessels.

“What we’re going to be looking for is the internals, the framing of the vessel, any thin spots on the hull, checking the wheels and the rudders and the other equipment underneath the boat as well,” Harrison said. “The Coast Guard is going to be concentrated on the internals a lot on what is coming up.”

As to how repairs are to be made, that will be largely open to vessel owners, which gives them the ability to minimize downtime.

“I’m very encouraged by the different options because I think if you’re limiting it to one option then you could cost a company,” he said.

As far as how all the new Subchapter M requirements will be enforced, “Everybody in the industry and the Coast Guard have been working on this together, trying to make it more uniform across each district.”

Some districts do have slightly different interpretations of Subchapter M, he said, but added that is not uncommon for new regulations.

“We talk it out with each other, and we come to an understanding,” Harrison said.

He urged others to pick up the phone and talk with local OCMIs.

“They’re there to help, and they’re learning just like we are,” he said.

Best Practices

The American Waterways Operators convened a working group and created a set of best practices for inland towing vessel hull inspection and repair.

“The idea is when these are released, towing vessel operators that have a towing safety management system will be able to incorporate these best practices into their TSMS and into their survey procedures,” said Caitlyn Stewart, senior director of regulatory affairs for AWO. “We’ve shared them with the Coast Guard, and the Coast Guard is taking a look to make sure they are consistent with Coast Guard policy.”

The best practices include how certain hull conditions will be assessed and addressed during drydock and internal structural exams. They are drawn from previous work done by a Coast Guard-AWO Safety Partnership quality action team and the Towing Safety Advisory Committee. Stewart said they include: use of doubler plates for repairs, repair of set-ins, monitoring and managing steel wastage and monitoring and managing unintentional water in void spaces, among other topics.

“There continue to be issues that come up that need to be addressed as implementation proceeds,” she said.

AWO hopes the best practices will help drive consistency in assessment, Stewart said. Although the Coast Guard does not have a deadline by which it will conclude its review of the practices, Stewart said, “We are in an ongoing dialogue with the Coast Guard as they review the best practices and expect their feedback soon.”