Towboat captains take pride in their craft: driving boats. That’s what they enjoy, and that’s what they signed up for.

Towboat captains are respected for their ability to handle boats and are paid well for their experience. So why do we put a big fat telephone book of a safety management system (SMS) on the boat and expect captains to actually follow its procedures? No one reads the telephone book. 

The truth is, an SMS for towing vessels does not have to be large and cumbersome, especially for small and midsize companies. The format of having purpose, scope, definitions, and responsibility preceding every procedure may not be the best approach. If you are running a shipping company with 80 vessels across the globe and offices on four continents, maybe that is the way to go. But for small and midsized towing companies, these items can be addressed up front, significantly reducing the size and complexity for the end user.

Years ago we came up with an SMS format intended to maximize the possibility that crews might actually use it. We removed all the extra verbiage, “bulletized” as many procedures as possible, and made it all 14-point font. We have applied this method successfully with all the different SMSes in our industry today, including helping a client get to Tanker Management Self Assessment (TMSA) stage 1.

With recent changes to industry SMS requirements, I have heard from clients who think that these changes, including TMSA standards, will require them to revert to a telephone book format. This could not be further from the truth. The quality of an SMS is not measured by how many words it contains. An SMS which covers all requirements — and can actually be read and understood by crews — is what each company should strive for.

A few years ago we developed an International Safety Management (ISM) SMS for a client. We kept to our streamlined format and included all standard industry policies and procedures, and it was still only 125 pages. Did the seasoned classification society surveyor say it wasn’t comprehensive enough? On the contrary, he said it could be reduced further.

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking more is better to impress an auditor or the Coast Guard. Streamline and make sure your crews are actually following the written procedures. Now, that’s impressive.


A collection of stories from guest authors.