Hold ‘em or fold ‘em? Make your approach and confidently dock the barge “safely” without an assist, because you have the knowledge, experience, ability, and sound judgement to know when you can do so. Or you abort your final approach because things just aren’t going right, or maybe they are not feeling quite right. So, you bail out while still under full control and before you reach the point of no return. This also requires sound judgement. Learning that is a key to success when playing the assist game.

It’s a very serious game to be sure, with many variables — tides, currents, winds, visibility, ice, nearby grounding or allision hazards, the type, condition, location and orientation of the dock, availability of line-handlers, the tug’s and tow’s particulars, vessel traffic, and more. These variables can interact in complex ways, which sometimes makes answering the basic question of whether the planned course of action is “safe” or not very difficult.

Furthermore, every “gambler” is uniquely different. Their individual appetite for accepting elevated risk varies, both between different operators and even with the same operator at different times and places, or at different stages of their career.

The problem is that variable, changeable nuanced answers may appear to be whimsical or unreasonable. They are often difficult for the other involved parties in the transport food chain to chew, swallow and digest. This is especially the case if they have little or no relevant and recent direct operational experience, running from vessel dispatchers all the way to the customers whose cargo is in motion, those who regulate or underwrite it, or even an operator that’s in way over their head without realizing it. Existing risk always rises when you don’t know what you don’t know.

The shortest, simplest answer is obvious. Whenever there is any real doubt, just use an assist. Except for dock builders and shipyards, no one involved in transportation comes out ahead after you’ve misjudged the situation, smashed into and damaged a dock, holed a barge, polluted a waterway, or hurt someone. And still there remains much more to this subject.

Joel Milton works on towing vessels. He can be reached at [email protected].