Baldwin Haspel Burke & Mayer LLC

Maritime Update: Towing License Required for Offshore Tow of Underwater Survey Equipment

Posted on by Baldwin, Haspel, Burke & Mayer

In the case of Shell Offshore, Inc. v Tesla Offshore, LLC, decided on October 5, 2018, The US Court Of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled that the master of a vessel engaged in towing a towfish used for purposes of conducting an archaeological survey of the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) is required to hold a towing license.

In November 2012, an underwater sonar device struck the mooring line of an offshore drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico, causing substantial damage. Tesla Offshore was using the sonar device, known as a towfish, pulling the device at the end of 14,000 feet of cable to survey the ocean floor.

The appeal was filed to challenge the trial court determination that the vessel pulling the towfish was a “towing vessel” whose master was required to hold a towing license. It was undisputed that the captain of the vessel did not hold the relevant towing credential. The owner of the vessel had filed for limitation of liability under 46 U.S.C. §§ 30501 – 30512. Under the Limitation of Liability Act, a vessel owner is entitled to limit its liability only if the owner lacked “privity or knowledge” of the negligent acts or other fault that caused the damage.

The trial resulted in a finding that the vessel required a licensed master and that the owner of the towing vessel was not entitled to limitation. This was based on the finding the owner knew that it sent the vessel to sea without the required license. The 5th Circuit upheld the lower court ruling.

The case can be found here.

If you have any questions regarding this maritime matter, please contact Bill Schwartz at (504) 569-2900 or



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