Subchapter M

Subchapter M: On To The Shipyards

Now that the final Subchapter M documentation deadline of July 19 is upon the towing industry, the next phase is the drydock/internal structural examination. There have been rumors and worries about an alleged impending shortage of shipyard space for those, but few hard facts. An upcoming meeting of the Marine Compliance Alliance in Paducah, Ky., will address those and other issues relating to DD/ISE’s on August 11.

Marine Compliance Alliance was formed in 2019 by compliance professionals wanting to establish a forum to discuss inland marine regulatory compliance. It was formally established as Marine Compliance Alliance Inc. in early 2021.

All inland towboats were expected to be in actual compliance with all Sub M regulations by July 2018. To avoid undue burdens on both towboat operators and the Coast Guard itself, the requirement for having the certificate of inspection showing compliance was phased in in stages, until July 19 of this year. That phase-in of the documentation requirement has been compared to having an honor system in a classroom. That’s only a rough analogy, though, because Coast Guard inspections were always possible, and operators knew that consequences could be severe for any vessel involved in an incident that proved not to be Sub M compliant.

Vessels whose keels were laid on or after July 20, 2017, are required to have been in compliance with Sub M requirements from the beginning.. 

Drydock Scheduling

Tava Foret is president of the Towing Vessel Inspection Bureau, which was formed in response to the need for Subchapter M third-party auditors.

“From the beginning, we always had a two-part mission,” Foret told The Waterways Journal. “Half of our mission was to serve as a third-party organization; the other half was as a training and certifying body.” 

Once an inland vessel has its initial COI, it must have a drydock hull inspection within a five-year window. Vessels exposed to salt water for more than six months in any 12-month period must have two DD/ISE’s within the five-year window. If there are more than a few of these vessels, said Foret, it could deepen potential impacts on shipyard availability. 

Having a vessel in drydock is a significant capital expense, on top of the downtime when the vessel is not earning revenue. Foret said she advises her client companies to plan carefully and schedule drydockings at their initiative, rather than waiting for the press of events.

Don’t Wait Too Long

Looking ahead, Foret says she is concerned about companies that wait too long, or wait until the end of the window, to schedule drydockings. There may be a temptation to make the most of the time available to use the vessel to earn revenue, and not to drydock until an operator has no other choice. But that could be a costly mistake resulting in a crunch of demand for shipyards later on, said Foret, and a loss of control over when operators have their vessels available. “You can’t renew the COI without the required DD/ISE. If you cannot renew the COI then you cannot operate the vessel,” she said.

Foret doesn’t have hard data on the numbers of inland drydockings. 

Long And Winding Road

The Subchapter M regulation was published in 2016. It was preceded by years of discussions regarding inspection and regulation of the nation’s towboat fleet dating back to 2003, when a Coast Guard-American Waterways Operators Safety Partnership first recommended creating towing vessel safety procedures. For more than 10 years, industry leaders and the Coast Guard met to develop requirements and rules for compliance. In a real sense, the towing industry, through the American Waterways Operators and through various committees, especially the Towing Safety Advisory Committee, midwifed the Sub M regulations. 

The AWO was a driving force behind Subchapter M because, as AWO CEO Jennifer Carpenter has said many times, the industry was anxious to remove the “uninspected vessel” tag that hung over the industry. The AWO’s Responsible Carrier Program (RCP) set industry safety standards that anticipated, or in some cases exceeded, Subchapter M requirements. 

That doesn’t mean there haven’t been issues raised for discussion between the towing industry and Coast Guard on particular aspects of Sub M inspection and enforcement, especially when it came to requirements that the industry felt were cut and pasted from blue-water scenarios without adequate consideration of the brown-water context. 

Subchapter M provided two routes to compliance and certification:

Coast Guard inspection: the traditional inspection model under which all inspections are conducted by the Coast Guard; OR

The Towing Safety Management System (TSMS): this option allows for Coast Guard-approved third-party organizations (TPOs) to inspect and certify compliance. 

Vessels don’t have to declare which option they choose until they actually apply for a COI. 

Decision Factors

The factors that lead a company to prefer Coast Guard inspections, develop its own TSMS or have a third-party consultant develop one are many and complex. The decision usually comes down to time and/or money. Companies that were RCP members and already had a TSMS had a head start on compliance practices and documentation. There are fees and expenses associated with the TSMS option, but potentially more control of time. Most companies have all their vessels go with one option or the other, although a few operators split their fleets, with some using TPO’s and others opting for Coast Guard inspections.

 Recent Coast Guard figures indicate that 70 percent of operators in Sector Upper Mississippi opted for Coast Guard inspections. Foret said she has seen a shift recently toward more the TSMS option for Sub M compliance, and away from the Coast Guard option. “The flexibility of TPO auditors and surveyors is the single most important persuasive factor in operators choosing the TSMS option,” she said.