When breaking loose from a barge to transition from towing astern to pushing ahead, that’s when a captain and his vessel are most vulnerable to losing control.

When a tug captain makes this maneuver, a tow is vulnerable to drifting with the wind and/or currents into shoal water, bridges, aids to navigation, anchored vessels, other drifting vessels, or simply getting in the way of other marine traffic. It’s amazing how much real estate can be used up while doing this. So the sooner you can shake loose, get around on your barge and regain full control of it, the better it is for you and everyone around you. Typically, this move is the most nerve-wracking part of the job for those that “steer.” For the deck crew, working around the tow wire and all of the associated gear during this maneuver is the most physically dangerous job they will face while aboard the tug.

And as long as there are conventional “hawser” or “wire” tugs in existence, there’s no avoiding it and the risks involved. It requires time and real thought on the part of the master and mate (as well as the deck crew members who have actual “skin in the game”) to engineer a system for transitioning from astern to ahead that maximizes safety. What works best will vary based on the exact layout of the stern deck on a given tug.

Small details can make big differences, so it’s worthwhile to take the time to experiment with different ways of rigging and executing this evolution, and then continuing to improve on it over time. For me, no matter how many times I’ve performed this tricky maneuver, it remains an ongoing project. The bonus that goes with this effort is efficiency. The safest way to do it is also the fastest way to do it, if you know how to use physics to your advantage.

Unfortunately, years of close observation have taught me that many mariners oppose the forces of physics at every opportunity. This means they face a tough fight every time. What often results is screaming, cursing, the wild swinging of sledgehammers, roaring engines and black smoke, and frustration.

It doesn’t have to be this way.