The mate helming the offshore supply vessel (OSV) Elliot Cheramie in the Gulf of Mexico was doing his best to stay awake during the overnight watch. He walked around the wheelhouse and stepped onto the bridge wings before settling back into the helm chair.
He woke up some time later with the oil and gas platform EI-259A dead ahead, according to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). The mate pulled back on the engines but could not stop the 150-foot vessel in time to prevent the impact.
Five passengers aboard the OSV suffered minor injuries in the incident, which happened at about 0245 on June 25, 2021, some 77 miles south of Port Fourchon, La. Elliot Cheramie sustained almost $200,000 in damage, while the platform and pipeline infrastructure required another $165,000 in repairs.
NTSB investigators learned the unidentified mate worked for almost 17 hours straight the day before the incident despite policies from operator Cheramie Dive Support intended to limit work to 12 hours in any 24-hour period.
The agency determined the probable cause of the incident, “was the owner/operator not adhering to their 12-hour work-hour limit policy, which led to the fatigued mate falling asleep while on watch.”
Cheramie Marine, parent company of Cheramie Dive Support, disagreed with the NTSB findings.
“The preparation of the NTSB’s report was through the lens of the oceangoing container ship and tanker industry, not the Gulf of Mexico towing and offshore supply vessel industry,” Max Cheramie of Cheramie Marine said via email.
Elliot Cheramie worked under charter to another company to service a platform some 127 miles offshore. The vessel returned to Port Fourchon at about 0630 the morning before the incident following a 12-hour voyage. The mate worked the 0000 to 1200 watch and was at the controls when the vessel returned to port.
All four crewmembers, consisting of the captain, mate, deck hand/engineer and deck hand, spent the day preparing the vessel to get underway. That included loading and stowing new cargo and provisions. The mate normally went to sleep at about 1300 after completing his watch duties. However, on the day before the incident he continued working until 1700 to prepare for the next voyage that evening, the report said.
The mate was not the only crewmember who struggled with fatigue. The relief deck hand arrived at a Houma, La., facility at 0700 the morning before the incident for mandatory Covid-19 testing. He then went to an apartment provided by the company to await those results but could not sleep. He arrived at the vessel at 1900 with the relief captain and spent about 2.5 hours working before going to sleep at 2130.
Elliot Cheramie got underway at 2000 with the relief captain and the deck hand/engineer on watch. The relief deck hand was slated to begin his watch with the mate at 0000. His alarm went off at 2344 but it did not wake him up. The deck hand/engineer went to sleep at midnight, leaving the mate alone on watch aboard the OSV.
“Having received only five hours of sleep in the previous 24 hours, and, given the physical nature of work performed the previous afternoon, the mate was likely experiencing the effects of acute fatigue,” the NTSB said in its report. “He reported that he felt groggy on his watch and fell asleep when he sat in the wheelhouse chair.”
The deck hand was coming back from two weeks off, during which time he kept a normal schedule that involved sleeping at night. He changed his watch schedule to 0000 to 1200 the day he arrived at the vessel without any adjustment period to acclimate to overnight work.
According to the NTSB, Elliot Cheramie’s safety management system (SMS) recommended giving crewmembers 24 hours’ notice before starting night work.
The mate’s work history for the 27 hours leading up to the incident drew scrutiny from investigators. He worked his normal 0000 to 1200 watch, then helped with cargo loading until 1700 — five hours after his watch ended. As such, his work history did not align with Cheramie’s rules against more than 12 hours of work in a 24-hour period.
NTSB investigators determined work-rest rules in the safety management system functioned as guidelines rather than strict mandates. Additionally, they found the vessel did not carry enough crew to ensure normal work got done while allowing them to get sufficient rest.
“The in-port unloading and loading took all hands several hours to complete, indicating that there was not enough crewmembers or workers to complete the necessary tasks while ensuring that crewmembers had adequate rest time,” the report said. “Had the fatigue mitigation measures in the SMS been required, the crew still would not have had the resources to adhere to such policies.”
Investigators also noted the mate should have informed the captain that he was feeling tired before his watch, as was stipulated in the SMS.
Cheramie Marine said it appreciated the NTSB’s work but identified “several factual discrepancies” within the report and the agency’s “failure to mention certain pertinent facts.”
“While we encourage our seamen-employees to prepare for their hitches prior to their arrival, given that they know if they will start their hitch on the back watch (midnight to noon),” Cheramie said. “We cannot control what they do on their off time.”
He also disputed the NTSB’s characterization of the shoreside cargo loading work conducted prior to getting underway.
“From noon on June 24, 2021, to the time of its departure at 2000 hours, the M/V Elliot Cheramie was on standby, and no work was being performed, in terms of loading and offloading, and/or cargo operations,” Cheramie said. “Ample sleep and resting time were available.”
After the incident, Elliot Cheramie’s crew checked on the condition of the five passengers, none of whom reported serious injuries. Crew found damage to the vessel’s bow but no signs of flooding in the engine room. Ultimately, the captain returned to Port Fourchon, reporting the incident to the Coast Guard while en route.
All four crewmembers tested negative for drugs and alcohol at 1158 on June 25 — some nine hours after the incident — because the vessel was out of alcohol testing strips, the report said. However, there was no indication either was a factor in the incident.
The mate joined Cheramie Dive Support only a month before the incident. He resigned a few hours after the vessel returned to Port Fourchon.