A federal program to recruit more tugboat pilots may have backfired by allowing thousands of novice captains to take the helm and contributing to a 25 percent increase in the number of accidents on the nation's rivers.
An Associated Press review of Coast Guard records indicates that the U.S. tugboat fleet is increasingly piloted by captains who have spent as little as one year in the wheelhouse.
"The system has failed," said David Whitehurst, a tug captain and member of the board of directors for the National Mariners Association, a national tug workers' group based in Houma, La.
"We have the highest horsepower in history, pushing more tonnage than ever in history, with the least knowledgeable personnel in history. It is a disaster. Look at the accidents we've had in the past few years."
Said Richard Block, secretary of the mariners' group: "You can't learn to run a towing vessel overnight, and some of these companies are simply rushing it too much."
18-wheelers of the waterways
Pushing or pulling barges piled high with freight, today's river tugboats are the 18-wheelers of the waterways, transporting all manner of goods such as oil, grain and chemicals.
At the start of the decade, the Coast Guard was under pressure from the shipping industry to revamp its training and licensing process for river pilots because an older generation of captains in their 50s was beginning to retire, creating a labor shortage.
The agency scrapped the time-honored "master's system" in which captains hand-selected rookies for pilot training. Instead, officials began allowing companies to pick trainees and pay for them to become "apprentice steersmen."
Under the new system, someone can get behind the controls of a tug after just a year, whereas the old arrangement required new pilots to spend years working their way up to the captain's seat.
In 2003, just 16 pilots were issued new apprentice towing licenses. By 2007, that number ballooned to 871, and last year to 885. The new pilots come cheap, too. An apprentice earns about $175 a day compared with $450 a day for a top-grade pilot.
But as the industry has added thousands of new pilots, the number of accidents involving tugs, barges and related vessels has jumped 25 percent, from 1,399 in 2003 to 1,754 in 2008.
And it's not because more goods are getting shipped. Over that same span, cargo volumes rose by only about 3 percent.
Capt. David Stalfort of the National Maritime Center, the Coast Guard's licensing branch, said the old master's licensing system had well-documented flaws. Before 1973, for example, tug licenses were not even required. And even after that, licenses were handed out to pilots with limited training.
'The stuff we do cannot be put in a book'
The new system has done what it was designed to do. "The apprentice mate is an effective program to get people into the program," Stalfort said. "I wouldn't characterize it as people coming off the street."
But Whitehurst and others worry that the industry has become saturated with inexperienced pilots.
"I started out here when I was 14 years old, and I'm 58 now, and I'm still learning," Whitehurst said. "This is hands-on. The stuff we do cannot be put in a book.
"Over years of doing it, you develop a feel for what you're doing. You look at the surface of the water — the water lilies, the debris floating down the river, the channel-marking buoys. It is like a book with open pages, and as the old timers would say, you read it."
Some experts say there is not yet enough evidence to raise the alarm about apprentice pilots.
"Ask me in 2011," said Richard Wells, a retired Coast Guard license examiner. "I think we'll have a better idea whether this change in licensing was positive or negative as far as the accident rate."
The new pilots are supposed to be overseen by fully licensed helmsmen, but they often run boats alone. Requirements for log books, training and mechanical checkups are routinely ignored, mariners and experts said.
Overwhelmed by volume of cargo
The Coast Guard has long been overwhelmed by the sheer volume of cargo on the nation's 25,000 miles of inland waterways. The agency has focused its efforts on bigger ships, which carry more cargo, and on fishing and recreational boats, which account for most accidents.
That leaves tugboats largely unpoliced.
The tugboat industry has "always been out of sight, out of mind," said Whitehurst, the tug captain. "The rails and trucking industry, they're in everybody's face. A towboat, they're isolated, they're behind the tree line."
For tugboat pilots, the cost of an error can be frightfully high.
When a towboat commanded by a sleep-deprived novice pilot pushed a fuel barge in front of a tanker in the New Orleans harbor, the collision sliced the fuel barge in half and spilled 283,000 gallons of oil.
The accident in the wee hours of July 23, 2008, caused one of the biggest oil spills in U.S. history, even though the tanker never ruptured.
John Paul Bavaret II, the man in the wheelhouse that night, held only an apprentice pilot's license. There should have been a fully licensed pilot with him. Bavaret (ba-vuh-RAY') told the Coast Guard he had routinely piloted vessels on his own, and that it was common practice at the company he worked for, DRD Towing Co. of Harvey, La.
Thomas A. Allegretti, the tug industry's leading lobbyist, characterized DRD as a rogue firm.
"No responsible operator is going to routinely participate in a practice of using unlicensed personnel in the wheelhouse," said Allegretti, whose group is called American Waterways Operators. "You would subject the safety of your crew, of your vessel, of your cargo, to enormous risk by doing that to say nothing about the attendant liability you face in terms of federal prosecution and accidents."
Accidents involving novice pilots
There have been other serious accidents involving novice pilots.
In 2005, an apprentice pilot misread warnings on the Ohio River outside Pittsburgh, and his boat and six barges plunged over a dam. Four mariners were killed.
And in 2003, a novice pilot steered a tugboat and its three tank barges into a railroad bridge on the Atchafalaya River in Louisiana, causing $210,000 in damage.
After the New Orleans accident, Congress called for action, and the tug industry moved to close some of its own loopholes.
The Coast Guard has started drawing up regulations for an improved inspection program and began the "Big Tow Operation," a nationwide effort to crack down on tugs that break the rules.
The Coast Guard is also training a new corps of 100 field inspectors specifically for tugs, hoping to examine the entire fleet.
"Most mariners want the boats inspected because it will make them safer," said Joel Milton, a New York-based tug captain and columnist for WorkBoat Magazine. "Companies would be more inclined to fix things."