160-foot tour boat with 100 guests aboard runs aground in N.Y. inlet

A 160-foot tour boat with a draft of 6 1/2 feet ran aground along a marsh on Long Island, N.Y., that is marked by buoys denoting 6-foot-deep water.
The Coast Guard is investigating why Nautical Empress grounded in thick mud along Sea Dog Creek, a marshy inlet on Long Island’s South Shore. The vessel’s owner said a buoy was off its station, but authorities disputed that claim.
The grounding at 2300 Aug. 10 caused no hull damage or pollution, but it ruined a late-night wedding party attended by more than 100 guests, who were evacuated to another tour boat.
The vessel grounded near buoy No. 7 of the Sea Dog Creek channel, said investigator Lt. Bill Grossman of the Coast Guard Marine Safety Detachment in Coram, N.Y.
Nautical Empress re-floated as the tide rose at 0500 on Aug. 11, the Coast Guard said. Grossman said the tour boat’s maximum draft was perilously close to the bottom of the channel.
“It was low tide at the time of the grounding. That had a lot to do with it,” Grossman said. “The charted depth is 6 feet, and the draft of the vessel was about 6 1/2 feet.”
The Coast Guard investigated whether the buoy was off its station, and issued a notice to mariners alerting them about the possibility. The Coast Guard is also looking at whether Nautical Empress traveled on the wrong side of the buoy.
Nautical Cruise Lines bills its cruise-ship-like Nautical Empress as a “tri-level super ship.” The vessel accommodates as many as 475 guests for receptions, parties and corporate functions.
A former dinner boat on the Potomac River in Washington, D.C., Nautical Empress has operated off Long Island for two years. The vessel routinely uses Sea Dog Creek, even at low tide, said Anthony Gillespie, one of the owners of Nautical Cruise Lines, based in Freeport, N.Y.
The crew made “no error” and the buoy was “off its station,” he said. “That’s the reason why the boat touched bottom. We’ve been through there time after time after time, and we know where that buoy is supposed to be.”
The town of Hempstead, N.Y., maintains the buoy and more than 400 other aids to navigation. Donald Toby, the town’s supervisor of waterways maintenance and navigational aids, said his buoy foreman used global positioning to check the buoy on the morning after the incident and the buoy was on its station.
“There is no question. It was in the right spot,” Toby said.
The Sea Dog channel is used mainly by recreational boaters and fishing charters, but occasionally large party yachts and tugboats operate there too, he said. The channel is only 60 feet wide; depth ranges from 6 feet to about 15 feet. The passage, west of the Loop Bridge, can be treacherous at night or when there is poor visibility.
The buoy has green reflector tape instead of a light. The Coast Guard said seas were 1 to 2 feet, with 10 miles of visibility, when Nautical Empress grounded.
“Sea Dog is a narrow channel, and it’s borderline mud and hard black sand, and there’s mussel beds that make it hard too,” Toby said. “You can’t let your guard down. It’s a tough channel if conditions are not in your favor.”
The town’s buoy foreman routinely checks the bottom conditions to determine whether shoaling has occurred, requiring his crew to move buoys sometimes 2 or 3 feet. That didn’t happen in this case, Toby said. The town’s navigational aids leave scant margin of error for mariners, he said. “Some of the Coast Guard buoys will give you a little room, but we can’t because it’s such a narrow channel here,” Toby said.
A mariner should never rely on any single navigation aid, including buoys, said Grossman, the Coast Guard investigator, noting that crews should use a combination of tools including the depth finder, radar and global positioning.
In this case, “it’s more of a management issue” whether Nautical Cruise Lines decides it’s worth the risk to continue operating in Sea Dog Creek at low tide, Grossman said.
Party hosts on Long Island prefer to cruise the back bays because the sea conditions are calm and the scenery is more interesting. Gillespie said his company plans to continue using Sea Dog Creek.
Toby said the tri-level Nautical Empress is the largest vessel that uses the Sea Dog channel, and he confirmed that “they have gone through there before at low tide with no problem.”
Drug and alcohol screenings of the crew were negative, the Coast Guard said. The wedding guests transferred safely to R&S Nautical Charters’ 58-foot Miss Freeport V.
By Professional Mariner Staff