Towing operations on domestic commercial vessels

If you undertake towing operations with your vessel, there are unique risks that you must consider within your risk assessment as part of the safety management system.

Towing operations include towing a vessel or object via towline, pushing, or towing alongside (‘hipped-up’). Towing operations can include both dynamic (moving) and static (stationary) towing. Static towing is when the towing vessel is used to position or restrain a towed object. The tow operation isn’t moving through the water, but the risks associated with the operation are almost exactly the same as for one that is going to another location.

Towing is a complex operation, and crew involved in towing operations must be appropriately qualified and trained.

The towing vessel also needs to be suitable for the operation. The vessel must be properly equipped to carry out the tow, and must have sufficient stability, watertight integrity, and enough power to carry out the operation safely. The equipment used for the towing operation must be in good condition and well maintained – pay particular attention to items like towing winches and their braking systems.

The Marine Safety (Domestic Commercial Vessel) National Law Act 2012 (the National Law) contains important obligations for owners and masters of all domestic commercial vessels. In particular, owners and masters must ensure the safety of crew, vessels, and the operation of the vessel.

Risk assessment

Prior to any towing operations, you must conduct a risk assessment specific to the operation. The risk assessment should be conducted by competent persons with experience and expertise in towing operations in order to ensure all aspects of the tow are considered.

The risk assessment should consider factors such as:

  • Suitability of the towing vessel: engine power, draft, design;
  • Effects on the dynamic stability of both the towing vessel and the tow;
  • Strength and suitability of towing connections on both the towing vessel and tow;
  • Suitability of towing equipment, such as towlines, fittings, winches and securing devices;
  • Crewing requirements, including qualifications and training of towing crew;
  • Passage planning, weather routing, safe places of refuge;
  • Emergency response arrangements including method of detaching or cutting tow line when under load in emergency situation, contingency if primary tow line breaks, emergency anchoring arrangements of towing vessel and tow, and challenges to recover persons overboard;
  • Any additional equipment that may be required (COLREGs lights / day shapes).

Operational risk to consider include:

  • Local waterways and port management requirements;
  • Girting of the towing vessel;
  • Restricted ability of vessel to manoeuvre while lines in water;
  • Effect on steerage of towing vessel;
  • Communications;
  • Visibility by master of towing vessel;
  • Weather and sea conditions.

The risk assessment should also consider hazards that personnel may be exposed to, such as:

  • Working near lines under tension;
  • Manual handling;
  • Safe transfer of people involved in the tow.

Risk assessment resources for towing

The Shipowners Club, Tug and Tow – A Practical Safety and Operational Guide.

This guide is published by the Shipowners’ P&I insurance club and highlights good towing practices and illustrates learning points from reported incidents.

Although the resource provided above is helpful, it does not replace the use of experts in this area. Surveyors, naval architects or other experts, should be consulted if this expertise is not available within the towing operation.

Last updated: 6 October 2023