Boats & Barges

Vessel Stability, COI Rules At Issue For Unmanned Barges On Lakes

Over the past decades, the inland barge industry has become used to having to respond to Coast Guard regulations adapted from blue-water contexts and applied to the brown-water operating area, sometimes in a blanket fashion. Those regulations may not apply or be relevant in a brown-water context, where conditions can differ from deep-sea shipping. Instead, they may impose unnecessary burdens of cost, time or both. A frequently cited example is firefighting regulations. The inland barge industry has argued that while certain firefighting equipment may be necessary at sea, where help is not always near, on the inland waterways firefighting scenarios don’t play out the same way or require the same equipment. An inland towboat is always close to a bank, and crews need not risk their lives to save property.

Travis Martin, president of Bay Engineering of Sturgeon Bay, Wis., has drawn the Coast Guard’s attention to another possible example of regulations applied out of context. In September 2021, Martin filed a Petition for Rulemaking with the Coast Guard, asking that unmanned Great Lakes barges be excepted from vessel damage stability regulations designed for crewed vessels in the Great Lakes. The letter was sent as a follow-up to the Great Lakes Maritime Discussion held on August 31, 2021, at Fincantieri Bay Shipbuilding in Sturgeon Bay, Wis., , with Adm. Linda Fagan and Sen. Tammy Baldwin in attendance.

The letter references a rule for vessel damage stability in place since 1986, Subchapter S, Part 172– Special Rules Pertaining to Great Lakes Dry Bulk Cargo Vessels, that was enacted in response to several sinkings of crewed vessels with large loss of life in the Great Lakes. As the letter points out, those regulations were evidently designed for crewed vessels to allow crews time to safely abandon the vessel. But “unmanned barges got looped into [regulations meant for] manned vessels,” Martin said. The U.S. Coast Guard worked closely with the Canadian Coast Guard in designing vessel damage stability standards for Great Lakes vessels. However, Canadian unmanned barges are not subject to them, which puts American Great Lakes unmanned barges at a cost disadvantage.

Grandfather Clauses

So if the regulation has been in place since 1986, why did it take so long for the issue to surface? Martin explained to The Waterways Journal that existing Lakes vessels were exempted from the requirement in “grandfather” clauses. As long as there was no new construction or vessel conversions, the issue remained dormant. But the 2000s saw newbuilds and vessel conversions increasing.

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Martin’s letter points out that unmanned ocean-going barges, which face rougher conditions than Lakes barges, don’t have to meet vessel stability test standards under the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS; “[I]t is unclear why unmanned dry cargo barges operating on the Great Lakes are required to pass a damage stability analysis while sea-going unmanned dry cargo barges are exempt from damage stability requirements,” Martin said.

In fact, it’s worse than that, according to Jim Weakley, president of the Lake Carriers Association. The Coast Guard did once require unmanned ocean-going barges to pass a vessel stability analysis but dropped that requirement—but not for Great lakes barges. “Why would they drop the requirement for ocean-going barges, but not for Lakes barges? It should be an easy fix,” Weakley said.

The Coast Guard has been studying the issue ever since Martin’s petition. According to Martin, there has been no word of a timeline for a ruling. However, he said, Coast Guard officials are considering linking his request with another pending issue: whether or not to require unmanned Lakes barges to obtain certificates of inspection, which they are currently required to have under Subchapter I, governing bulk carriers.