Insufficient lookouts cited in Caribbean collision that sank tanker

The tanker was bound for Great Stirrup Cay in the Bahamas when the collision occurred. 

Tropic Breeze was underway in the Northeast Providence Channel north of Nassau, Bahamas, with nearly 150,000 gallons of petroleum cargo when a U.S.-flagged yacht slammed into the vessel from behind. 

Within 25 minutes, the 160-foot tanker sank in more than 9,000 feet of water. Its seven crewmembers escaped into a life raft and rescue boat and were ultimately carried back to Nassau without serious injury. 

The tanker was bound for Great Stirrup Cay in the Bahamas when the collision occurred. 
The tanker was bound for Great Stirrup Cay in the Bahamas when the collision occurred.

Three of the 12 crewmembers aboard the damaged 176-foot yacht Utopia IV reported minor injuries. Losses from the incident, which occurred at 2200 on Dec. 23, 2021, some 20 miles off Nassau, approached $8 million. 

National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators determined both vessels lacked proper lookouts. Crewmembers aboard both vessels also failed to use their radar appropriately in the minutes leading up to the collision. 

“Had either kept a proper lookout,” the NTSB said in its report, “they likely would have detected each other and could have taken action to avoid the collision.”

The Belize-flagged Tropic Breeze got underway at about 1800 from New Providence Island carrying 156,000 gallons of refined petroleum products in its tanks. It made about 5 knots on its scheduled to Great Stirrup Cay some 12 hours away. Its AIS system was not working and repairs were delayed due to impacts from the Covid-19 pandemic, the NTSB said. 

Utopia IV, meanwhile, left from Albany anchorage on the west side of New Providence Island at about 2030 heading toward Bimini about 160 miles away. It had seven passengers and its 12-person crew and made about 20 knots using its four MTU main engines. 

Utopia IV’s unidentified captain was licensed in the United States and had sailed in Bahamian waters for more than 30 years. He conned the ship during the voyage while a bosun navigated. According to the NTSB, the vessel sailed with only its X-band radar operational and set to a 3-mile scale. 

The master and an able seaman were on watch aboard Tropic Breeze with the radar set to a three-mile radius. The radar system was programmed to sound if a target came within two miles. However, its radar dome was partially blocked by the mast atop the bridge, creating a shadow area directly astern, the report said. 

The bosun was alone on the deck when the collision occurred despite lacking licenses to perform watch duties solo. The master on Tropic Breeze was alone on watch during the collision after the AB went on rounds to check different systems aboard the vessel. 

No one on the bridge of either vessel reported seeing the other on radar before the collision. 
No one on the bridge of either vessel reported seeing the other on radar before the collision.

“Just before 2200, the bosun on Utopia IV turned his attention to recording the hourly log entries and navigation fix, leaving his back turned to the forward windows,” the report said. “About the same time, Tropic Breeze’s master started toward his cabin, immediately aft of the bridge, to use the restroom.”

The collision occurred less than a minute later. Utopia IV slammed into the tanker at a relative speed of 15 knots. Its bow struck the ship at the transom, on the port side of the centerline. Closed circuit cameras on the yacht captured several crewmembers lurching forward, and the captain was thrown into a door frame.  

An engineer aboard the tanker reported rapid flooding in the engine room, where the engines became submerged in the rising water. The ship’s master decided within 15 minutes to abandon ship. The ship sank about 10 minutes later. It was a total loss valued at $5.1 million. Its lost cargo was worth about $350,000. Damage to Utopia IV exceeded $2 million. 

The good Samaritan yacht Amara responded to the collision site and recovered Tropic Breeze’s crew from the life raft and rescue boat. Utopia IV made a similar attempt but could not board them due to swells and the height of the yacht’s aft swim platform, the report said. 

The captain and bosun aboard Utopia IV said they did not see the tanker’s stern light as they bore down on it. Their vision was obscured by ocean spray hitting the windshield but neither saw the vessel on radar, either. 

Investigators said the yacht’s captain and bosun should have focused on watchstanding. Given the conditions, the NTSB said, placing a third crewmember on the bridge specifically on lookout would have been prudent. 

“As Utopia IV approached Tropic Breeze from nearly directly astern, the yacht, as the overtaking vessel, was required by 72 COLREGS to give way to the tank vessel,” the NTSB said. “However, because the watchstanders on Utopia IV were not maintaining a proper lookout using all available means, they did not identify the risk of collision.”

Crew aboard Tropic Breeze, meanwhile should have take steps to avoid a collision due to uncertainty about the yacht’s intentions. “However, the watchstanders on Tropic Breeze did not detect Utopia IV approaching,” the report continued. “If they had seen the yacht, they likely would have signaled the potential danger in some way, whether by radio communication, whistle, or other means.”

The NTSB also determined crew aboard both ships used their radar ineffectively. Since personnel on both ships told investigators they did not see the other vessel on radar, that suggested to investigators neither looked at their radar within at least 12 minutes leading up to the collision. 

Tropic Breeze was managed at the time my Maritime Management, which could not be reached for comment. Ownership details for the yacht, which was based in Miami, were not immediately available.