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An offshore supply vessel using a towfish - is a towing vessel? (Tesla's involved too!)

Every now and then courts have had to decide whether a particular water craft is a ‘ship’/vessel under the relevant maritime statute. Most recently it was the US court of appeals which was posed with a somewhat similar question – is an offshore supply vessel that is using a towfish (a small sonar device roughly 2m long for underwater archeological survey) a ‘towing vessel’ or not?

If 'yes' then it would mean that the master of this vessel needed a special towing certification, which he did not posses at the time of the incident, and this would ultimately result in Tesla and the off-shore vessel owner being 'unable to limit' their liability towards Shell for damaging underwater mooring lines of an off-shore rig.

Their argument was that 'towage' required one vessel to assist in the movement of another. This requirement was expressly mentioned in US Radiotelephone Act and Inland Nav rules. However, the court saw no reason to apply these two statutes to the present case. As per the plain wording of the relevant statute "46 U.S.C. § 2101(40)", the offshore supply vessel was a 'towing vessel'. It was pointed out that vessels engaged in ‘incidental’ pulling, pushing and hauling activities however are not (for eg. those fishing).

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