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Research Project

Availability of Tugs of Opportunity in Canada’s Pacific Region

In this Report, You’ll Learn About

  • The availability and distribution of tugs of opportunity to assist disabled ships in Canada’s Pacific region.
  • How often tugs of a given bollard pull may be available to assist a vessel in need, based on historical data.
  • Three gaps within in the current tugs of opportunity system: gaps of capability, gaps of availability, and gaps of understanding.


This study characterizes the potential capability and the availability of commercial tugs engaged in usual trade for use as Emergency Towing Vessels (ETVs) in Canada’s Pacific Region. These tugs are referred to as “tugs of opportunity” as they are not dedicated to or necessarily intended for rescue efforts. As tug traffic patterns remain relatively consistent from year to year, automatic identification system (AIS) data from 2016 were used to identify the tugs active in Canada’s Pacific Region and represent typical tug activity. Each tug’s location and route were determined from AIS data, and its capability was established based on its bollard pull (the force a tug can apply when pulling against a fixed object). Tugs were divided into four categories for analysis. The proportion of time tugs in each category are likely to be present was determined by the frequency of travel in 40 x 40 km grid cells on a map and the frequency with which tugs crossed analytical passage lines drawn on the map of the region. Tugs are most commonly found in near-shore waters from Vancouver to Alaska. Tugs of all sizes follow this general pattern of movement, but larger tugs are present in all areas with less frequency.

In 2016, no tugs of opportunity could rescue the largest ships in severe conditions (sustained winds greater than 33 knots or 99th percentile conditions), including large and very large container ships, LNG carriers, passenger ships, and bulk carriers. In less severe conditions, more ship types were rescuable. In sustained winds of 27 knots (95th percentile), tugs of opportunity would have been capable of rescuing all except the large and very large container ships. Still, it is unclear whether any tugs of opportunity would have been available if needed with sufficient time to respond. This report demonstrates how often tugs of a certain capacity may be available based on historical data but does not assess all factors that would determine the outcome of an incident requiring an emergency tow.

Key Takeaway

Towing disabled ships in Canada’s waterways is an essential emergency service, and its significance is gaining attention due to the flourishing shipping traffic and the demand for improved coastal ecosystem protection. The provision of emergency tow services in Canada’s Pacific Region involves a combination of dedicated capability, such as leased emergency towing vessels (ETVs) and the ad hoc employment of commercial tugs. This report highlights the limitations of the ad hoc system, emphasizing the need for dedicated capability to adequately protect the coast against the increasing size and type of vessels travelling in the region. The available commercial tugs often lack the necessary capabilities to respond effectively in severe weather conditions and to larger vessels, such as container ships, LNG carriers, passenger ships, and bulk carriers, which pose significant risks to the coastline in the absence of sufficient response capacity.

Research Team

This study was commissioned by Clear Seas and produced by Nuka Research and Planning Group, LLC.

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