Sunday, November 3, 2013

Google's Mystery Barges Are Probably For Huge Booze Cruises (Editor's Note: We Don't Think So)

The Huffington Post  |  Posted:   |  Updated: 11/02/2013 3:57 pm EDT

 As Illustrated in PROJECT AZORIAN merchant ships and barges are not always about their publicly proclaimed purposes. Illustration from actual links to two books on the subject appear at the bottom of the post

The Huffington Post reported Sunday that a local TV station on the West Coast reported that the two "Google Barges" are actually modular show rooms/mobile party barges. The report claims that the top decks are giant party spaces and the lower decks can be used as show rooms. The entire superstructure of the giant "barracks" type barges appear to be made of shipping containers. In one version of this story the shipping container show rooms can be removed and dispatched by truck to different locations for different purposes. We find several problems with this explanation and we note that the Huffington Post reported this with a number of non technical reservations holding out the probability that the barges are still unexplained and noting that Google is still silent. We'd like to offer some technical insight into why we think the barges are still unexplained.

 First and foremost if these barges are meant to be used in the United States for hosting parties for product promotion several past Coast Guard interpretations of United States law and regulation of "passenger vessels" have assigned "passenger for hire status" to customers being taken for boat rides for promotional purposes. In the past  the Coast Guard has made it difficult for a yacht or recreational boat salesman to take a prospective buyer for a "test drive" without being in possession of a personal Coast Guard issued "Motorboat Operator's license". More over if such a salesman had such a personal occupational license, he or she would be strictly limited to carrying six or less "such passengers:" on any typical yacht. Any vessel carrying more than six "passengers for hire" has to have a "Certificate of Inspection". To be awarded a "Certificate of Inspection" a vessel's plans have to be approved by the Coast Guard before being built. The vessel is subjected to inspections during the construction process, and and tests after completion. Once the vessel is awarded a "certificate of Inspection" It is subjected to annual re-inspection. For a very large passenger vessel such as these supposed passenger barges the vessel would probably have to be built to "the rules of subchapter H" (Subchapter H of Title 46 Code of Federal Regulations). There is no provision in these rules for anything like construction out of shipping containers. Being familiar with the rules we see a number of construction requirements for a "Subchapter H" vessel that would be nearly impossible to meet using shipping containers. 

 Among the Subchapter H rules there are quite a few rules about access and egress structural requirements that are not visible on these barges. There are rules about ports (windows) that many a gambling vessel design had great difficulty with when gambling boat owners attempted to get windowless designs approved, since they didn't want passengers distracted from the gaming. Some exceptions and exemptions did get through the Coast Guard on these designs, but it wasn't easy. There are also fire fighting, life saving equipment requirements that are usually very visible from the exterior, even on the gaming boats that won reduced "window" requirements. From the exterior view these Google barges are clearly designed for housing something and not for cargo operations, but they don't have the expected and almost unavoidable exterior signs of "party barges".
Such barges must also have a Coast Guard licensed Master and Coast Guard certified crewmen as specified on the certificate of inspection. The Coast Guard does offer a Masters license of passenger barges but it is quite rare. Other licensed Masters may serve but such employment on a non self propelled barge that spends a lot of time moored isn't a career enhancing assignment given that the Coast Guard requires rather extensive "sea time" experience requirements for the career advancement of Merchant Marine Officers. We've seen no advertising for positions that would likely be for these barges in the maritime trade journals. 

 Finally the Huffington Post article speculated that the barges were a bit crude and industrial looking for marketing purposes and that their potential locations in industrialized ports aren't exactly conducive to the marketing of retail products. To that observation we would add that such an explanation doesn't explain why there are two of these barges on the West Coast. One on the East and one on the West Coast would make more sense. Of course one could be in the fitting out process for a Panama Canal transit to its new home port. Then our critique could be off if neither barge is going to be registered as a United States vessel, but even if foreign registered other nations have similar passenger vessel rules and so do classification societies that must inspect and provide an owner with a certificate for insurance purposes. And if they are built for eventual foreign registration why were they so much in contact with the U.S. Coast Guard and why did the Coast Guard feel so legally bound to "respect the trade secrets" of the owners. We simply aren't ready yet to buy into the "party barge" explanation and Google isn't taking calls.

 As we reminded our readers when we first published on this story. Vessels some times come with "cover stories". They are sometimes built for one purpose then launched, sometimes with a bit of fanfare announcing a totally different purpose. Two books about a single true story of such an incident are linked below. We don't know when the public will know what the real purpose of the "Google" barges are but we wouldn't be surprised if we really don't know even after the official corporate announcements.


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