It was lucky for the Australian Spirit that when it lost steering off Chebucto Head last week, a powerful tugboat happened to be making its way south from Newfoundland.

The Coast Guard can’t rescue big vessels in open ocean on its own. It relies on a certain type of large, commercially-owned tugboats to do the job--and it has no control over where they’re stationed, with only one currently working in Nova Scotia waters.

"There isn't a CAA-like service where you say hey, I'm broken, come tow me," said Peter Ziobrowski, who runs the Halifax Shipping News blog.

The predicament of the Australian Spirit, a tanker owned by a Vancouver-based company, was the latest of its kind.

In 2013, the derelict Russian cruise ship Lyubov Orlova was drifting near Newfoundland's oil and gas fields after its tow line snapped. It was ultimately rescued courtesy of Husky Energy with one of the company's contracted supply tugboats.

The MV Miner has been stranded off Scatarie Island since 2011 after a failed tow, though that accident was thought to have more to do with bad weather than an unsuitable tugboat, said Ziobrowski.

Special vessels called anchor-handling supply tugs are ideal for towing huge vessels. They're often used to resupply oil and gas platforms, and they're powerful enough to tow the platforms, said Ziobrowski.

"Having a larger vessel with more power, proper towing winches, means you have enough cable that you can tow safely," he said.

'There's a good marine community'

Super-size tankers and cruise ships have become more common over past decades, said Ziobrowski, who started writing the blog in 2008 when he moved in across from the shipyard. The smaller vessels of the past could generally be handled by regular harbour tugboats, he said.

Australian Spirit map

This map shows the course of the Australian Spirit, a crude oil tanker that lost steering off the coast of Nova Scotia last week. (marinetraffic.com)

Irving-owned Atlantic Towing has a fleet of about eight anchor-handling supply tugs, and only one is based in Nova Scotia right now, said Irving spokesperson Mary Keith.

The system works, says the Coast Guard. The benefit of open-ocean emergencies is that without the danger of running ashore, there's more time to coordinate the response, said Keith Laidlaw, an environmental response officer in Nova Scotia.

The Coast Guard has the power under the Shipping Act to direct any vessel to respond in any way needed, said Laidlaw, though it doesn't usually come to that.

"Generally, you know what, there's a good marine community and people are always willing to help each other," he said.

Though the Coast Guard has no control over where the supply tugs are at any time, radio operators know their locations, said Laidlaw. Most are working in Newfoundland right now, but "they are constantly in and out of Halifax harbour."

Coast Guard plans don't include ocean-going tugs

The Coast Guard tries not to compete with commercial towing companies and will only step in during the most dire situations, said federal spokesman Frank Stanek. Some of its ships could perform an emergency tow, he said.

Long-term Coast Guard purchasing plans don't include ocean-going tugs, he said.

In the case of the Australian Spirit, help came immediately, said Laidlaw. The Coast Guard asked the Venture Sea to go to the tanker and it was released from its contract.

Ship owners are responsible for arranging and paying for their own tows in Canadian waters. 

"The process is collegial, and focused on getting to operational outcomes as quickly as possible," said Jonathan Anthony, a spokesman for Vancouver-based Teekay Corp., which owns the Australian Spirit. "It is a real team effort."

On Monday, another tanker arrived in the Bedford Basin to begin offloading oil from the Australian Spirit. Anthony said it was too early to discuss what went wrong with the tanker’s steering or how long repairs will take.