When American Tugs first began operating in Puerto Rico 2002, they were a family-run business comprised of just six tugs, and only used paper to track their operations. Today, American Tugs has grown to eleven tugs and four barges, and was named the first company in the Caribbean to earn a certificate of inspection (COI) through the United States Coast Guard (USCG). How did they accomplish such a big feat? They did it with Helm CONNECT Compliance and an amazing team that was dedicated to improving their operations.
Getting started with Helm CONNECT wasn’t an easy task for American Tugs because Maritime Administrator, Pedro River Junior, and his team weren’t familiar with the technology. “It’s like we were speaking different languages and it was difficult to understand at first,” he told us. In the middle of their implementation, they were also hit with Hurricane Maria, which brought the project to a halt. Despite these challenges, they kept pushing forward with the system, knowing that Subchapter M was just around the corner. After receiving in-person training at our office during Helm Conference 2018, Pedro gained a better understanding of Helm CONNECT, which motivated him to keep improving his company’s operations.
Since then, with the help of a consultant, Maritime Compliance International, LLC, Pedro was able to build a Towing Vessel Record (TVR) in Helm CONNECT in just one month that was comprised of roughly 50 forms. When asked why he went with the Coast Guard option instead of using a third party organization (TPO), Pedro said the answer was simple: past experience and economics. They had tried previously to build a towing safety management system (TSMS), but the crew didn’t want to adopt it because it required significantly more forms to be completed daily. The Coast Guard option was also cheaper than using a TPO.
All this hard work and dedication to improvement paid off when their tug, Marilin R., was the first vessel in the Caribbean to be awarded a COI through the USCG option. “Two years after I started with the company, Congress passed a law to start inspecting tugboats, but it took from 2007 to 2018 to decide when that inspection would be. Since the beginning, I’ve been dealing with this, so finally getting to that day where the COI team comes in to inspect the vessel, it’s a big accomplishment. I’ve been working ten years to prepare for it, and the day it finally came was a little bit overwhelming but satisfying in the end.”
When asked about the inspection process, Pedro told us that the first thing the USCG Marine Inspector said when he saw Helm CONNECT was, “Wow, what is this?”, and that moment really set the tone for the rest of the inspection.
“One of the things that made the inspection super easy for me was having Helm CONNECT,” Pedro said. “I sat down with my computer while the USCG Marine Inspector asked questions. They ask to see this certificate and boom; we take it straight from onboard Helm CONNECT. Same thing for our Towing Vessel Records. They asked me where the record is for a certain date, I search for it using history or advanced search, it pops up, and I show it to them. We didn’t have to go through a bunch of papers and folders. We just gave them what they needed instead of showing them everything we had. It really impressed them.”
Pedro also shared a quote with us from the USCG Marine Inspector, “Inspections such as the Marilin R. are what make my job very satisfying. The inspection team was more than pleased with the condition of the vessel and the knowledge of the crew and could tell that the crew and the employees put a lot of time and effort into getting the vessel ready for the USCG inspection.”
When reflecting on the journey from leaving paper to earning their COI, Pedro said the most difficult part was learning about the technology and building out the TVR in Helm CONNECT. However, he said that once it was up and running the rest was easy. “We basically told the crew to stop using paper and start logging in to Helm CONNECT, and whatever the system tells you to do, do it. The younger crew members especially love the system, and they even suggest ideas for ways they can improve it,” he explained. The easiest part of it all though was the inspection itself. “Having Helm CONNECT helped me so much to answer those questions and get prepared for this moment,” Pedro stated, adding that he had no regrets about choosing the Coast Guard option. He strongly believes that having Helm CONNECT helped American Tugs establish trust with the Coast Guard because it proved that they were organized and serious about their operations.
Pedro’s final advice for companies considering the Coast Guard option is to work with a consultant or someone who used to be an inspector and has inside knowledge about what they’ll be looking for. “Or they could just call me,” he joked. Moving forward, Pedro and the rest of the team at American Tugs will be working to optimize their system in Helm CONNECT and get COIs for the rest of their vessels.