What is a towing vessel?

A powerful oceangoing tug lugging a fuel barge up the East Coast is clearly a towing vessel. And a towboat on the inland rivers pushing a cluster of coal barges also fits the bill. But as vessels handle new roles in the offshore energy industry, the definition of a towing vessel can go beyond traditional ones we recognize. This was illustrated by a recent decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals in the Fifth Circuit.

The matter arose in the Gulf of Mexico and involved something known as a towfish, which is an underwater sonar device. The one here was about 7.5′ long and shaped like a torpedo. It was deployed by Tesla Offshore to conduct a high-resolution survey of the Outer Continental Shelf. Tesla chartered a vessel from International Offshore Services for the tow. While reeled out with about 14,000′ of cable, the towfish struck one of the mooring lines of a mobile offshore drilling unit operated by Shell Offshore. This resulted in the line losing tension and a suspension of drilling operations.

Shell sued for damages, with the jury ruling in favor of the company and awarding it more than $9 million. The court’s decision placed 75% of the blame on Tesla Offshore and 25% on International Offshore, which challenged the court’s finding that its vessel was a towing vessel under 46 U.S.C. 2101. The U.S. Code defines a towing vessel as “a commercial vessel engaged in or intending to engage in the service of pulling, pushing, or hauling alongside, or any combination of pulling, pushing, or hauling alongside.”

Why was this towing vessel issue so important? Under federal rules applied by the court here, the master of a towing vessel of 26′ or more in length is required to hold a towing license. The captain of the vessel pulling the towfish did not hold the relevant towing credential. International Offshore argued that its vessel was not a towing vessel as a matter of law. It didn’t dispute the court’s analysis under a plain reading of the statute, but it felt that the statute could produce absurd results if applied literally.

On appeal, the higher court upheld the lower court’s decision that International Offshore’s vessel was a towing vessel, thus it was subject to the federal rules mentioned above. This shows that although maritime law deals with terms that seem simple on their face, such as “seaman” or “vessel,” multimillion-dollar lawsuits can be fought over how such terms are interpreted.

About the author

Tim Akpinar

Tim Akpinar is a Little Neck, N.Y.-based maritime attorney and former marine engineer.

1 Comment

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    Wonderful ruling (sarcasm).

    So now, a master who has worked offshore, doing this sort of work for years is incapable of taking on this kind of job in future. Since the USCG changed the licensing years ago from Freight & Towing to Steam and Motor, you are relegated to one or the other. If you don’t work for so many days in the last 5 years on towing vessels (or tankships, or DP vessels, etc), you will lose your license to work on them in future. How, exactly are we supposed to continue to hold any license in order to work any job anymore?

    Times are tough right now. I’ve been working at sea since the early 1970’s, been through a lot and was previously able to work anywhere, on any vessel. It’s a huge fu*k^p to make the rules more and more restrictive like this! This industry is very cyclical. In the past, we could (and did when we had to) change the particular sector of the industry we worked in. I switched from offshore to tankships. I worked tankships for 13 years before my company scrapped all its ships and laid us all off. I was lucky to be able to switch back to work in the offshore sector and even more lucky that it was before the rules were so strict about DP. I never would have been able to get a DPO certificate if the rules were like they are now. I know so many people who’ve worked and struggled for years to earn one, to the point of working for FREE, and they STILL CAN’T get one!

    Because I have been working in the offshore sector for the last few years, I can no longer work on tankships. Something is REALLY , REALLY WRONG with this situation!

    The point is, the USCG is making it damn near impossible for a US mariner to continue working at sea, to keep their license current due to their separation of sectors of the work. It is NOT so different that we need all these new ‘assessments’ and validations and specialized sea time in order to work on a MPSV doing a survey job and any other vessel- towing or otherwise. It is NOT so different to work on a tankship and an ITB. Yet the USCG insists on making it impossible for us to work on a tankship one year and an ITB the next. Or a DP vessel one year and a passenger vessel the next.

    This latest ruling is just one more nail in the coffin for the US mariner. Eliminating more of us from the last sector of work that really has much hope of work (offshore). I HOPE they overturn this ruling!

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