The vast majority of towage claims are claims in contract. Routine towage operations under contract are referred to in law as “ordinary towage”, and are contrasted with the sort of ‘emergency’ towage which takes place during a salvage operation. In the vast majority of ordinary towage situations a tug will be providing services on a standard form of contract wording, which both parties will be familiar with.
It is important that our Members enter towage contracts which are on what is known as “knock-for-knock” terms, or terms more favourable. Knock-for-knock terms are essentially an agreement whereby each party takes responsibility for damage to their own property or injury to their own employees, regardless of how caused (i.e. who was negligent). Accordingly, the parties also agree to indemnify each other against claims brought by third parties against the wrong side. The most common standard form towage contracts all include such terms, or terms more favourable still.
The main standard form towage contracts used are as follows:
“Towcon” 2008 - Towcon contains a basic form of knock-for-knock terms, where the tow and tug agree to meet their own liabilities. Where the tug collides with another vessel or property it accepts liability for the damage and where the tow collides it does the same. The contract is designed for use in the ocean towage of a vessel from one place to another at a fixed rate.
“Towhire” 2008 - Towhire contains the same basic form of knock-for-knock terms as Towcon, but the contract is designed for the hire of a tug for a period of time, rather than for one specific job.
Contracts at Common Law
Sometimes terms are not agreed in advance of the towage operation, or the terms used by the tug are not properly incorporated into the contract of towage. In these circumstances the courts will apply what they call an ‘ordinary contract of towage’. This is a contract with only basic terms, under which the owner of the tug is required to provide a seaworthy tug, which is properly manned and equipped and they must be competent and use skill in carrying out the operation.
A common law towage contract, such as this, is not desirable for a tugowner because although it still absolves them of liability for accidents beyond their control, it does not provide the necessary defences, limitations of liability and safeguards that the normal standard form conditions provide.
The often cited general principle of towage that "tug is servant of tow", in other words the tug is (generally) the smaller vessel and is only acting under the instructions of the larger vessel. The principler comes from The Niobe (1888).
 There are some notable exceptions. In salvage claims where there is no contract claims arising are based on equitable rights at common law. In so-called ‘gratuitous’ towage situations, where no charge is made for the towage service, claims are based in tort. And where the tow is capable of being considered ‘property’ (say a dumb barge incapable of independent navigation and with no crew) then a claim in bailment is also possible.