Home' Work Boat World : December 2015 Contents A tug made the front pages of the Hong Kong newspapers
recently, which is remarkable in a city which generally ignores
all things maritime.
It was not much of a tug, probably around 900 brake horse
power with twin screws and a crew of three, but it was towing a
derrick barge from the airport back to the Yau Ma Tei typhoon
shelter - and it was the barge which really caused all the trouble.
You see, there are two possible routes the tug could have taken.
The major fairway passes under the Tsing Ma bridge, where there is
plenty of room and a clearance under the bridge of 53 metres.
Unfortunately, there is also a narrow channel called Kap Shui Mun
which is rather tricky to navigate and is restricted to one-way
traffic. The Kap Shui Mun bridge has 41 metres clearance – more
than enough for the local craft which favour this secondary route
because it is considerably shorter and gets them home in time for
The two bridges must both be crossed by all vehicles and trains
going to or from Hong Kong’s international airport.
Now it seems the derrick barge had a small mechanical problem
and was unable to lower its derrick boom, the tip of which was
some 44 metres above sea level. This would not have mattered if
the flotilla had stayed in the main fairway, but for some
inexplicable reason the tug master decided to go through Kap Shui
Mun. Perhaps he was an escaped lunatic, or perhaps he was new to
Hong Kong and had not consulted his charts, or perhaps he
estimated the height of the derrick and thought it looked lower
than 41 metres. There are dozens of possible reasons, and I do not
know why he selected the route which would make him famous.
Readers who are still awake will have guessed the rest of the
story already. The boom hit the bridge and caused minor
damage, somebody noticed and closed the bridge while safety
inspections were carried out, and Hong Kong was cut off from its
own airport. The chaos was immediate and widespread, because it
seems there was no effective contingency plan to get passengers
to the airport by ferry. Traffic backed up on the highway, rail
passengers were crammed onto platforms waiting for trains
which did not arrive, flights were delayed and lots of people ran
around like headless chickens.
Our tug master, meanwhile, appears to have sailed away
without telling anyone. He towed the barge into the typhoon
shelter and tied up alongside her then, presumably, went to bed.
Next day, sharp-eyed officials noticed a damaged derrick boom,
put two and two together and, in normal Hong Kong fashion,
arrested the captain of the tug and the crew of the barge for
criminal damage. The maximum penalty for criminal damage is 10
years in jail. Ouch!
Hong Kong’s legislators are an uninspiring bunch who seldom
miss an opportunity to criticise the government and one of them was
quoting as saying the Marine Department was to blame because it
had been “lax in its patrols”. He speaks, of course, from a position of
profound ignorance but none of the reporters who heard him had
the wit to ask why, if the Marine Department was lax, this was the
first accident in the seventeen years since the bridges opened.
I do not know why this happened and am content to wait for
the accident investigation branch to report, but some people are
reluctant to let the facts interfere with their prejudices, so I
suppose a shedload of manure will be deposited on the Marine
Department in the coming weeks.
Perils of the autonomous tug
My reason for dwelling on this relatively minor accident is that
I have read the stories about the new autonomous tugs designed by
Robert Allan, which will work in tandem with a manned tug and
be controlled by a second captain using a remote control unit.
Sadly, I am now old enough to have a deep mistrust of new
technology. Some friends of mine recently purchased a top-of-the-
range drone with an excellent camera system and for a few days
produced some stunning aerial videos of their activities. Then, for
no apparent reason, the drone developed a mind of its own and
flew into a cliff. I was fairly sure something would go wrong, but I
tried not to look smug when it happened.
The drone only hurt itself, but imagine the damage which an
autonomous tug will do when it gets away from its handlers. I can
imagine a scenario where robotug keeps pushing at full power and
drives a gas tanker into a nearby passenger ship. The resulting
conflagration triggers robotug’s fire monitors, but they are
pointing straight up and the water jets hit the first rescue
helicopter on the scene. Severely injured, the helicopter veers away
and makes an emergency landing at the nearby airport, right in
front of a fully loaded passenger aircraft which is trying to land on
the same runway. The resulting fireball is visible for miles.
Meanwhile, the blazing tanker drifts towards the bridge which is
the only link between the airport and the city. Its mainmast is 54
metres above sea level...
Younger readers may argue that, in reality, autonomous tugs
are unlikely to do any more damage than the manned variety.
Even I have to admit that my friend Pradeep Chawla is correct
when he says “the futurists cannot be stopped” . But if I was going
to be sent to prison for 10 years for criminal damage, I would
rather it had been my hands on the controls at the time of the
With ALAN LOYND
Towing a derrick barge
Kap Shui Mun
10 December 2015 WORK BOAT WORLD
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