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Tug & barge - Understanding pitfalls & learn tips to avoid them

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The sight of a tug towing a barge is probably a very common sight one would observe along the Malacca Straits or even on waters surrounding South East Asia and Asian countries. So common that it may sometimes be seen as just another type of sea transportation mode which is considered relatively simpler, but at times and quite inaccurately, regarded as lower risk compared to transporting goods using larger vessel. The reality is far from these assumptions and reasons for this will be elaborated on further in this article.

Barges, on which cargoes are shipped, are usually non self-propelled and therefore dependent on a tug for propulsion; where the tug is the prime mover for the barge, connected to the barge using a towline. Distance between both can reach 200 metres and more.


Why is this method popular?

There are a couple of reasons that lead to barge shipments being so popular and common within the Asia Pacific region. Among them is accessibility advantage as tugs and barges are smaller with much lower draught compared to larger vessels, therefore able to access locations not accessible to large vessels. Another reason would be cheaper mode of transport as these vessels are much cheaper to operate and maintain, compared to larger ocean-going vessels. Others would include versatility in which to a certain extent, barges are almost like a general cargo vessel, able to transport a wide variety of cargo, albeit in much smaller quantities.


Types of configurations and arrangement

The most common configuration is the single tow, where one tug tows one barge. Another configuration is the tandem tow, also termed double tow, where one tug tows two barges, which possess higher risk compared to a single tow. Other types of configuration would be tandem and breasted tugs, where two tugs are used to pull one tow unit and termed according to the positioning of the tugs.


Common losses with typical attributable causes

  1. Stranding and foundering are probably the most common losses experienced by tugs and barges.

  2. This is usually caused by one or a combination of factors such as engine failure, underpowered tug, outdated navigation charts and towline or related tow gear failure. Capsizing are also commonly attributable to the some of the above factors and sometimes caused by inadequate stow and/or securing of cargo which compromises stability or structural failure.

  3. Another common accident would be collision with other vessels. This is commonly caused by crew negligence, poor navigation watch keeping, inadequate display of lights and shapes by tug and/or barge and defective navigation aids.

  4. Others include fire losses, typically caused by poor housekeeping, unsafe practice, crew negligence, inadequate/poorly maintained fire-fighting equipment and/or nature of cargo (inherent vice). In certain regions, piracy and hijacking is also a common occurrence; this can be caused by poor watch-keeping, poor voyage planning and/or very little or no anti-piracy measures.


Characteristics of high risk tugs and barges:

There are a number of characteristics that would increase the probability of a loss materialising. One of these is when a tug or barge is unclassed or classed by a classification society that is not a member of the International Association of Classification Society (IACS). This would likely lead to the vessel not complying with international maritime standards. Another would be the over age, especially if unclassed/non-IACS classed, where the vessel is not maintained and operated to the required standards, which among others, could lead to loss of propulsion or structural failure.

Another characteristic is when the tug does not have the minimum power to tow the barge, in turn causes the tug to lose control of the barge especially during rough sea conditions. Other characteristics would be little or no Port State Control (PSC) Inspections history, owners/operators with poor reputation, vessel flagged in little known or PSC blacklisted flags.


What should be checked before shipping on barges?

As a minimum, always request for:

  • Tug and barge specification – to ensure among others: vessel age, size, horsepower, capacities, limitations etc. are suitable and adequate for intended cargo and voyage.
  • Tug, barge and crew certification – to ensure tug, barge and crew comply with required standards.
  • Tow configuration – to ensure only single tow arrangement is used; avoid using double or tandem tow.
  • Experience in carrying special cargoes – to ensure tug crew is familiar, adequately trained and equipped to handle risks associated with certain types of cargo.
  • Voyage plan & intended route details – to ensure risk exposure in relation to piracy and/or sea conditions is controlled.
  • Vessel suitability and towage approval survey by an approved, reputable and independent surveyor – to ensure crew, vessel and related equipment are all in satisfactory condition and able to undertake the intended voyage safely.


When in doubt, always refer to your insurer for specialist advice and assistance.

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