Two national response vessels in action: Abeille Liberte, foreground, and Anglian Princess, background. The UK has since retired its emergency response tug fleet (Marine Nationale file image)

World - Does it Make Sense to Have a National Emergency Towing Fleet?

Different nations take different approaches to emergency towing response services

In the early hours of October 17, 2014, a Marine Communications and Traffic Services Centre operator in Prince Rupert, BC, noticed a vessel moving slowly and erratically, only 20 nautical miles (37 km) from the coast of Haida Gwaii, too close for safety. The vessel had lost power, the captain was injured, and the 10 crew members were working frantically to re-start the engine before the wind and waves pushed the ship carrying mining supplies and fuel onto the rocks.

The ship was the MV Simushir, a Russian-flagged cargo vessel. Within a few hours, the Simushir was drifting just 6 nautical miles (11.1 km) from shore and rolling 50 degrees in high seas. The Joint Rescue Coordination Centre in Esquimalt, BC, directed the nearby but small Canadian Coast Guard (CCG) vessel Gordon Reid to respond, while the ship’s agent contracted the larger American tug Barbara Foss, located in Prince Rupert, to secure the ship and tow it to safety.

Arriving on scene the same afternoon, the Gordon Reid successfully took the Simushir in tow by 5:30 PM, after two failed attempts, and began towing the drifting vessel away from shore. The two vessels made it 20 nautical miles before the Gordon Reid’s third tow line broke at 10:50 AM the next morning and the Simushir resumed drifting.

The Barbara Foss arrived on scene six hours later, nearly 40 hours after the crew of the Simushir called for help. The Simushir was towed to Prince Rupert harbor, arriving at 1:15 AM on October 20, the three-day ordeal finally over.

Disaster was averted due to the heroic efforts of the Canadian Coast Guard, supported by the Royal Canadian Navy and Air Force, the US Coast Guard, the commercial shipping industry, and a hefty dose of luck when the wind eased, but this situation, unfolding in the ancestral territory of the Haida Nation, highlighted the risks posed by ships sailing close to sensitive ecological systems along Canada’s coast yet far from the nearest rescue vessel.

The Simushir incident sparked concern and debate. It set in motion a chain of events that ultimately led to the establishment of the Voluntary Protection Zone off Haida Gwaii and Canada leasing two dedicated Emergency Towing Vessels (ETVs) to try to prevent a similar incident resulting in a disastrous oil spill. Now the Canadian government is assessing what the future of these two ETVs should be and if similar additional protection is needed in other parts of Canada.

In continuing to assess Canada’s emergency towing situation and develop an effective strategy from coast to coast to coast, what can we learn from around the world? What towing help is available and which countries have dedicated tugs ready to aid a ship that breaks down at sea? This article provides an overview of ETV resources — government owned or chartered — available to maritime nations like Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, France, Norway, the United States, and others.

While there are international rules and conventions governing the rescue of crews, aid to ships in distress and the provision places of refuge, individual nations have different approaches to providing emergency response services. This review also explores the different philosophies countries have when it comes to funding, ranging from government-financed vessels to relying on so-called “tugs of opportunity,” vessels that have other operational duties but may be called upon in an emergency.

To add to the discussion in Canada, the Clear Seas/Angus Reid Institute public opinion poll asked in the fall of 2022 whether ETVs should be funded by taxpayers or industry, and the response was that industry should cover the costs. Three-quarters (73%) of Canadians believe it should be the responsibility of shipping companies to pay for emergency towing services. Few (13%) believe it should be a government service paid for by taxpayers.

Australia: Safeguarding an island continent

The regulation and safety of Australia’s shipping fleet and management of its international maritime obligations are under the responsibility of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA). The agency manages emergency towage capability under the National Plan for Maritime Environmental Emergencies that covers some 34,000 kilometers of coastal waters. Towage is supported by state and territorial authorities, who manage the risks within their respective jurisdictions.

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