Pat Folan Weighs in on All Things 'Tugboat'
Pat Folan is a partner in Daphne, Ala.-based Tug & Barge
Solutions, a safety and compliance company that focuses on
Subchapter M compliance for towing companies. The company also
performs surveys of towing vessels and barges, manages safety
management systems for towing companies and trains people on
towing vessels and in offices. A professional mariner, for 27
years, he also operated towing vessels from Maine to Corpus
Christi, Texas, including the Alabama Rivers, Lower Mississippi,
Great Lakes and Erie Canal. A graduate of St. Bonaventure
University, he began his career in towing in Boston in 1985 on a
wooden single-screw tug, eventually owning a towing company that
specialized in Erie Canal towing. He holds a Master of Towing
Vessels for Near Coastal, Inland and Western Rivers. He was a
member of the USCG's Towing Safety Advisory Committee (TSAC) and
a sub-committee chair for the Steel Hull Repair and Operational
Stability tasks. A certified ISO 9001:2008 Lead Auditor, ISO
19011:2011 Internal Auditor, ISM Internal Auditor, USCG-approved
Designated Examiner and a SAMS Accredited Marine Surveyor, in his
spare time, he maintains a website about tugs
(www.PelicanPassage.com). In the world of workboats, Pat is well
known, and is widely regarded as one of industry's most
knowledgeable and experienced subject matter experts in his
particular niche. This month, he shares that knowledge with
Marine News readers, weighing in on all things
What is your general impression of the state of the
inland marine industry today?
Depressed, but slowly recovering. Marine construction and
dredging appears to have fared better than dry and liquid
cargoes. I see more barges moving now in the GIWW and my
customers report the same. If we can get oil back on track, we
will see the smaller operators come back online as the larger
ones get busier.
What is the most important issue facing inland marine
transportation providers today?
I see two issues that are related - regulation and labor. Sub M
is necessary but the timing is bad. With boats laid up, the crews
have found other work. As the economy improves, the cash-strapped
operators have to bring vessels online in a tougher regulatory
climate. As they bring people onboard, they will have to ensure
compliance for both their vessels and crews. Where will the
supply of Sub M-educated mariners come from? If you are a small
company without a TSMS, how will you come up to speed?
What can inland operators do better today - in any phase
of their operations?
They can pay attention. A lot is changing and knowledge of the
regulatory and industry-led changes will be the key to a
successful operation. This also includes greater involvement with
their crews to help them with the changes.
One of the big complaints that the inland (and workboat)
industry has with today's regulatory environment is that often -
but not always - regulations made for blue water are pushed down
onto the so-called brown water industry, without regard for
whether they actually fit. How can the Coast Guard better package
these regulatory burdens to more closely match the issues they
are trying to address?
I think that the problem has always been there. The USCG always
takes a one-size-fits-all approach. And it is always reactionary.
They don't have the manpower or the expertise to look at each
part of the marine industry and see the differences. RADAR is a
great example. A towboat hit a bridge and every one of us has to
take a RADAR certification course designed for deep sea captains.
The accident was in the mid-90s and we all still sweat the 5-year
renewal because it doesn't apply to the towing industry. More
industry input would help but we don't have the manpower either.
So, we are stuck with 'knee-jerk' reaction regulations that don't
really apply, but that we have to comply with.
When we talk about safety, we must also talk about push
boat crewing and watch schedules. What's your opinion on the "6
on/6 off" & "4 on/8 off" debate?
Probably the simplest approach would be to modify the 12-hour
rule. Let mariners work 8 hour watches. Industry trade groups do
studies and tell mariners that 6 on/6 off gives you all the sleep
that you need, but I disagree. Maybe it does in a lab that
doesn't roll, pitch and bump into things, but after 14 days of 6
on/6 off I had to sleep for a full day at home and it never felt
like I caught up. The fatigue was noticeable by the end of the
If the push boat industry went to a '4 on / 8 off'
schedule, could they afford it?
A '4 on/8 off' probably couldn't work. Our boats can't
accommodate the additional personnel. And the companies couldn't
afford it. Companies are going to struggle with Sub M costs.
Additional personnel for the companies that are crewing their
boats appropriately now would be hard. It would be impossible for
the companies that don't even use a four-man crew for a 24-hour
day. I also don't believe that we have enough people to go to
that type of schedule.
Subchapter M towboat rules: will it make industry safer
or is it just another paper exercise (think ISM)?
Eventually. We have a big behavioral change to make first. And it
includes boat owners, operators, dispatchers and crews. The oil
side is better prepared, but they need a break after phasing in
Sub M. For years they have absorbed additional costs heaped on by
regulators and oil companies with no corresponding rate increase.
Something has to give there. Rates need to rise to offset the
burden. The dry side, along with marine construction and
dredging, will struggle. They haven't had to live with the
requirements that the liquid side has and when you get to the
small dredge companies, it's still the wild west. The larger
dredge companies are beginning to require more of their towing
subcontractors, but it is still going to be hard. The margins are
slim and it will be hard to raise rates. So this will take time.
But, give it two COI cycles and the companies that have made it
and their personnel are going to look very different from what
they are today.
What's the difference between AWO's RCP and the Sub M
rules? And, why does it matter?
The short answer is industry needed the compulsory route. AWO
saw the hole in company safety early on and worked hard to get
companies to recognize it too. Most of their members have done a
good job of evolving within the RCP. But, AWO fell short of
engaging the small companies that don't necessarily have a
business need for RCP. The cost of joining AWO keeps people out.
They don't understand the benefits. AWO has done a great job of
hosting Sub M informational meetings and inviting non-members
lately. I hope that they continue to do this. There is not a lot
of difference between Sub M and RCP. But AWO through the RCP will
help you grow. It would be very hard to make it on your own at
this point in the game. The RCP accepted as TSMS is great for the
AWO members but even RCP systems audited last year will have to
be modified to meet Sub M. TVIB is doing a lot behind the scenes
to ensure that they are ready and the auditors that I know are
helping AWO member companies learn more about the regulation in
order to successfully complete their next audit.
Some stakeholders feel like that the Sub M rules didn't
go far enough. What's your take on that?
It's a foundation. TSAC and the USCG did a good job. Each company
can build on it to continuously improve. The TSMS option gives
each company the flexibility to become better. And we don't need
more regulation to make us better. We just need a better
Another aspect of the SubM rules that will likely make an
impact on industry is that while a lot of firms participated in
the AWO RCP, just as many did not. Will this level the business
playing field, and if so, how will it change the
I think Sub M will level the playing field. I know of companies
that will cease to exist by next July. They don't want to comply.
I know of some that will use older equipment in tough shape until
they can no longer do so. And I have spoken with companies that
still don't think it will happen or if it does that it won't
apply to them. We'll lose a lot of vessels, but that's okay. They
are the ones that we need to lose. The remaining companies will
offer safer, better vessels for our mariners to work on and
consequently fewer boats (but the same amount of work) should
allow rates to rise. And a more safety-oriented industry will
force the barge owners in the marine construction/dredge side to
change their way of doing business.
Do you see more consolidation for the inland marine
business in the near future? If so, what's driving that?
We are an industry made up of mom-and-pop businesses that do the
work that the big guys don't want. I think that there will be
fewer, better-run companies. And sadly, it will be much more
difficult to start a small towing company in the future. The
average small towing company is started by a tug/towboat captain
who thinks that he can do better if he owns the business, but has
little business acumen or regulatory knowledge. The post-Sub M
implementation small towing operator will have to know more and
spend more. Gone are the days of picking up an old boat and going
into business. A Sub M-compliant boat will not be cheap.
What keeps you up at night? What can be done about
Attitude. We have great boat operators in the towing industry.
Most of them downplay their professional side and that's a shame.
Not to disparage deep sea captains, but our inland guys are
hands-on operators - 1,100 foot tows in the canal, 40-barge tows
on the river - those are highly developed skills. The tanker
captains have a pilot to get them to sea, a pilot to get back in
to port and a docking pilot to land them. Towing vessel operators
do it all, every day. I wish that they would recognize that they
are also marine professionals. A lot of guys on towboats and tugs
feel that their lack of education keeps them from being true
professionals (and they will put down the academy guys for their
book knowledge), but it's only their perception of themselves and
their industry that keeps them down. If we can get them to view
themselves in a new light (as the equal of the deep sea captain)
then we would see changes within our industry.
Outside now - looking in - what would be your focus if
you were the CEO of a large inland barge & push boat
Training and coaching. Exposure to more men and women from the
academies for the hawsepipers and vice versa. We can all learn
from each other. My turning point came at a gathering of Mass.
Maritime Alumni that I was invited to. I was impressed as they
all talked about their lives at sea and the cool places and
foreign ports that they had been to. Then someone asked me what I
did and when I told them I ran the Erie Canal they all fell
silent. That was a "cool, foreign place" that they could never go
and they wanted to know more. We shared sea stories for hours
after that. There was mutual respect. The brown water/blue water
line seems to divide two very different worlds but we have a lot
in common and a better understanding of each other would be very
beneficial. They have lived through a lot of what the brown water
people are about to go through. We should all strive to be the
best that we can be and continuously learn about our profession.
(As published in the April 2017 edition of Marine
Apr 20, 2017