West coast tugs and the Prime Minister’s babysitter

PHOTO: Halifax Shipyard, Perry White, Peter Williams from https://www.shipsandoil.com

The federal government of Canada recently revealed a plaque commemorating the humble tug and its important role in BC’s development. Tugs and towing was a fundamental part of BC development, since all matters of products moving in and out of tight inlets and tricky narrows, deep fjords were generally move by tug and barge. BC’s tug industry spawned an important marine cluster around Vancouver. Notable marine industry names from the region include: Allied, Seaspan, Rivtow, Beaudrill, Wagner, PMC, ComNav, Ulstein, Burrard Iron Works, Kobelt, etc, etc. As far as tugs are concern, few will argue the importance of Robert Allan Ltd in the international tug market, modern designs drawn from the rich BC tug industry heritage. Needless to say, tugs are very important to BC and Canada’s Marine industry.

However since the highs of the Canadian marine industry, back in the early eighties, mainly based around Vancouver and the western Arctic, things have been going downhill. It would appear that the government seems hell bent on curtailing the coastal marine industry in western Canada. Policies allowing raw log export closed countless mills and the numerous coastal tug providers they depended on – this put many BC residents out of work, and reduced BC tug capacity dramatically. At the same time, maybe less dramatic than the on the East Coast, the fishing activities were curtailed, concentrating the right to fish into fewer hands, again putting many BC seafarers out of action. The use of “temporary foreign workers”, Coasting Trade Act Waivers in the last 15 years have further eroded any faith in the future of the coastal marine industry in BC.

A dying breed, the west coast seafarer, photo by Seaspan

With tug companies reeling from the persistent “downturn” in the forest industry Governments pandered to their whims and reduced limitations on west coast tugs. Typically, and in most other markets in Canada, any vessel over 1000hp needs a certified Marine Engineer onboard – a fourth class Certificate of Competency (CoC) would suffice, usually a Third Class CoC is sought for 2000-4000hp range. The magic number is 4000 hp, a vessel with more horsepower typically requires a 2nd Class CoC and usually more than one engineer, meaning a considerable cost increase to operators.

In a bid to make more money, with the blessing of Transport Canada, operators got rid of licensed engineers onboard tugs, especially around the Port of Vancouver. Owners argued that within the Vancouver Port, tugs are close to their home base and therefore could “run home” in case of trouble, and therefore could do without engineer onboard the tugs serving the harbour. The problem is that the tugs have grown significantly complex and now they have considerably more horsepower than they had when this exemption was granted. Then, the port of Vancouver grew, amalgamating the Fraser Surrey port and Deltaport, and so did the port limit. Trouble is now the port of Vancouver, one could argue, encompasses the whole of Georgia Strait. As such, a great deal of tugs over 1000 hp sail with no licensed marine engineers onboard these complex vessels.

With these concessions, it is now boom times for harbour tugs, and doom times for forestry (not that there is less trees being cut – they are just being processed in Asia) the “outside boat” slowly died off due to a lack of investment, lack of revenue and lack of people – because there is less opportunity for experience and advancement. Smaller outfits filled in with smaller boats, that, tonnage wise, did not require as many people, especially not marine engineers. As a result, many accidents have taken place over the years, tugs sinking, barges running aground. Another tug with four crew members, sank, just this week, on the north arm of the Fraser river. This is to be expected, when too small of equipment to handle too big of a job is used.

Kirby’s tug Nathan E Stewart, sunk near Bella Bell on BC’s central coast. Credit, from the interwebs

All this leads us to a dire situation now in the west coast marine industry. The erosion of the seafaring knowledge base, the lack of investment in capacity deployed on the coast has given rise to several high profile incidents, in particular the Nathan E Stewart, and the Jake Shearer, both American articulated tug and barge units, that ran into trouble near Bella Bella, on BC’s central coast. There has also has been several other incidents where deep ships have had breakdowns off the BC coast. In all these cases, the lack of capable tug capacity on BC’s coast became quite evident.

In the case of the ATBs – designed to run with as minimal people as possible – the Nathan Stewart ran aground because the mate fell asleep (six on, six off watchkeeping will do that), and the Jake Shearer’s pin system, which “marries” the tug and the barge together, broke, nearly causing a catastrophic grounding of fuel barge loaded with 13 million liter of petroleum products.

Shamefully, in each case, salvage was performed by American vessels (working in Canadian waters); with aging vessels, the under equipped Canadian Coast Guard was left watching from the sidelines. With this becoming a major embarrassment for the government trying to push an oil pipeline that is not at all popular in BC, the federal government under the guise of the Ocean Protection Plan stated that they would hire two stand by rescue tugs to respond to further calamities. Because… that’s the least they could do.

Last week, the federal government announced that the well-connected Canadian oligarchs, the Irving Family, and its Atlantic Towing division, had won a $67 million dollar contract to supply two stand by rescue “tugs” for the BC coast.

In my interactions among my seafaring peers, the disgust over this decision is barely containable.

Primarily because most know Atlantic Towing as a major Newfoundland and Nova Scotia operator in the offshore oil and gas industry, currently a lucrative job market. However due to local politics, any Canadian seafarers not based in Newfoundland are generally not allowed to participate in this market – this is part of the regulations – however, Newfoundland residents are free to work in any other market they choose, such as the great lakes, Alberta, and in BC.

The ships highlighted in the press release are older platform supply vessels, veterans of the Newfoundland coast, big indeed, but designed for a completely different environment that the BC coast. It’s inlet laden coast, filled with tight passages and tricky shoals posed serious challenges to local mariners as it is. Based on my sailing experience on this coast, and even as an engineer, I can see these old vessels are not a right fit on the BC coast.

Dominic LeBlanc from Wikipedia

In a further ‘FU’ to coastal BC people, the government bypassed the wishes of the Heiltsuk people of Bella Bella in this decision, and considering Atlantic Towing’s complete lack of infrastructure on this coast, one must assume that very few officers and crew from the BC coast will crew these vessels.

An insider told me that they knew the “fix was in” some time ago, citing the close relationship of Dominic LeBlanc, the Federal Minister responsible for the Canadian Coast Guard (until recently), and the Irving family. Dominic Leblanc is the son of Romeo LeBlanc, a long time Federal Liberal Party insider; Dominic LeBlanc babysat the current Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau.

Personally I am not opposed to pipelines or tankers in BC. Given the state of emergency declared last week due to raging forest fires, undoubtedly increasingly fueled by global warming, I find the massive capital expanded towards this project, aimed to please the “money traders” on the “markets” to be poorly thought out, and shortsighted.

On the other hand, the thoughts of a “few crumbs off the dinner table” to us lowly BC coastal seafarers might be something to go on, has suffers a set back when we realize there is absolutely nothing in this pipeline deal for us. Newfoundlander will work in BC waters, without reciprocity, while the Irvings, allergic to paying Canadians and Canadian Taxes, squeeze out more tax payer money into their pockets though their tight ruling party connections, for two old ships they could no longer market to oil companies.

The traders laugh all the way to the bank making a “small percentage” for “handling the sales” of a product that needs to be phased out, pronto. Then there is the shipping of oil on flag of convenience tankers providing absolutely no benefits to BC coastal communities, jobs, or taxes to the national coffers. I guess now, we can pin our last hopes for the few “benefits” of this pipeline, cleaning beaches when tankers clips some rocks. To be paid for, you guess it it, by taxpayers like myself, as the Marathasa incident as shown, there is no way you’re getting money out of a FOC tanker owner.

Sorry, I got dark here, but it really is sad to see the future for my children, no jobs, and all this debt and damage, and no benefits for them, yet we have so much history and potential.


Editor’s note – Sept 11, 2018

I wasn’t very clear on why tugs, instead of supply ships, are important on Canada’s west coast for this particular task.

To be an effective rescue tug in coastal BC waters, I would expect to see a tug of at least 4000 hp; probably better to have in the 3000-8000 hp range. Any more horsepower and it won’t be nimble enough to get in close and tight – given the nooks and crannies the BC coast is made of – while below 3000 hp, it is too stretched for the turbulent seas and be confident to handle the work. Not to mention, Canada’s west coast tug experience is unlike any other markets, where West Coast seafarers, with its high volume of barging, are well verse in “yarding”, line towing and effectively working with two moving masses with ease and confidence. – Martin Leduc

This article has 2 Comments

  1. Hello Martin,
    I just read your blog post of 18 August “West Coast Tugs…” with interest.
    I am an active member of the Company of Master Mariners , Nanaimo division, and have just recently raised as a formal issue the same contradiction you mention, that there are barriers to interprovincial employment across our country. If you are interested in connecting with me and learning what the CoMM of Canada is doing on this issue, please do reach out to me at a.slade@moroceaninc.com I look forward to connecting with you.
    cheers, Amanda

  2. As a master with Seaspan I find your article right on the money. The hope for jobs evaporated all over this coast with this announcement , now we hope that the Atlantic towing people will require the services of the Pilotage Authority since they have no west coast experience.

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