Start 'em up!" The order is followed by doors opening and closing, feet on ladders and, finally, the whine of spinning air starters as the big diesels come to life. "Take 'em in!" The mooring lines are then unwrapped from the bitts and cleats and then flipped, tossed or rolled off the fittings on the dock. Then we're underway at the beginning of our next job.

Linehandling is a basic but very important skill for all towing vessel crewmembers, not just deckhands. When performed by an experienced and skilled mariner, linehandling can resemble an art form that can be impressive to watch. However, when performed by an inexperienced or unskilled seaman, it can be a source of great frustration and can also be dangerous.

My company's safety manager recently confirmed that the primary source of injuries among deckhands was linehandling activities. This covers numerous evolutions such as mooring and unmooring a tug or barge, making up alongside, getting into push gear, breaking down the tow, and putting the barge on the wire. It demands a variety of skills that take time to acquire and require steady reinforcement to maintain. As ATBs become more prevalent, this skill set, to our detriment, is clearly being lost in a hurry. The failure to warm up and stretch at the beginning of each watch was cited as a frequent cause of injury, and I believe that lousy techniques amplify the problem.

While it isn't brain surgery, there's a lot more to skilled, safe linehandling than meets the eye. Personally, I'm torn between wanting to make it as safe and foolproof as possible for deckhands and maintaining the traditional linehandling skills that can only be learned and refined by practice and repetition. Sometimes efforts to make things safer can backfire when critical skills are lost as a result. If we make it too easy, then when something unexpected happens, it results in panic and confusion on deck. Crew, both on the tug and barge, may have no idea how to set up and put out a three-part headline, surge a two-part strap or competently use a capstan.

We should think carefully about the possible consequences of allowing traditional skills such as linehandling to die.