Maritime Towage

AuthorEdgar Gold; Aldo Chircop; Hugh M. Kindred; William Moreira
To tow means to employ one vessel to supply power to, or to expedite
the movement of another vessel.1 In practice, towage may include a var-
iety of services, including holding, pushing, pulling, moving, escorting,
guiding, or standing by the hirer’s vessel.2 Very often ships of all sizes,
including those possessing their own means of propulsion, require the
assistance of another vessel to be navigated safely. Such assistance may
be required to enable a ship to make or leave a berth, dock or canal,
or perform any manoeuvre in conf‌ined areas. Some ships do not have
propulsion and therefore need towage services to move them from one
place to another. Thus a dumb barge (an open barge with no propul-
sion) can only be moved in tow. Likewise, offshore installations often
require towage to and from offshore areas, frequently assisted by a f‌lo-
tilla of tugs.
The practice of towing is as ancient as shipping itself. In Egypt, gal-
leys with oars were employed to tow barges loaded with stone in the
1 Princess Alice (The) (1849), 3 W Rob 138 at 139–40; Stevens v The White City, 52
S Ct 347 (1932) [Stevens]. The transportation of a ship on land is not towage:
Toronto Window Mfg Co v The Audrey S, [1965] 1 Ex CR 83.
2 Def‌inition of “towing” in article 1(b)(i) of the UK Standard Conditions for Tow-
age and Other Services 1986 [UKSTC], reprinted in Nicholas Gaskell, Charles
Debattista, & Richard Swatton, eds, Chorley & Giles’ Shipping Law, 8th ed (Lon-
don: Pitman, 1987) appendix 10.
Maritime Towage 749
building of the pyramids.3 In many port facilities of the Roman Empire,
there were f‌leets of harbour tugs employed to row the larger trading
vessels into the dock or to an anchorage, purportedly with the object-
ive of maximizing precious harbour space and expediting the voyage.4
After the collapse of the Roman Empire towage seems to have prevailed
primarily for the purpose of ensuring the safety of vessels coming into
port.5 With the application of steam power to ships in the 1820s and
1830s, the usefulness of small and powerful tugs for assisting larger
ships into port or up and down rivers, and for navigating rivers with
barges and log booms was quickly recognized. Today there are a multi-
tude of tugboat designs to fulf‌il each of the functions accorded to them
in antiquity, and towage remains an important service for the safe navi-
gation of different ships in a variety of conditions.
Towage is provided as a result of a contract of towage and thus the
fundamental responsibilities of both ships are governed by the terms,
conditions, and exemptions of the towage agreement, whether express
or implied. In common law jurisdictions, with the notable exception
of the United States, there is no special statute to regulate towage other
than rules of general application such as the Collision Regulations.6
Thus, the matter has been left to the courts and contract. Towage law is
therefore a blend of contract and tort law.7
The vessel that provides the power is called the tug or towboat. The tow
is the vessel employing the tug. In general, it is not necessary for the
ship that provides towage to be a purpose-built vessel. However, ships
3 Donal Baird, Under Tow: A Canadian History of Tugs and Towing (St Catharines,
ON: Vanwell Publishing, 2003) at 19.
4 Lionel Casson, Travel in the Ancient World (London: Allen & Unwin, 1974) at 157.
5 The Navigation Code of the Port of Arles of AD 1150, provides at article C144
that seamen have a duty to assist vessels in need of assistance entering the port.
Provisions to the same effect were also enacted in the Rules of Oléron, chapter
1266, article XXV, the Consulate of the Sea (1494) article 159-A, and the Ordinanc-
es of Bilbao (1511) chapter 26. Towage (as an activity) was not regulated in the
Ordonnance de Colbert or in the French Code de Commerce of 1807 or the codes
that followed its model. Equally, in England the f‌irst case deciding upon a towage
contract was heard in 1843. Alex Parks, The Law of Tug, Tow and Pilotage, 3d ed
(Centreville, MD: Cornell Maritime Press, 1994) at 6.
6 CRC, c 1416.
7 Joel Goldstein, “Towage” in Benedict on Admiralty, 7th ed revised, vol 8 (San Fran-
cisco: Matthew Bender, 1997) (loose-leaf release 110-12/2009 Pub 130) at 14-02.

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