Barge drifts 100 miles and runs aground after towlines part

The Crowley Maritime Corp. barge La Princesa beached along the Virginia coast. The vessel broke loose from its tugboat Sentry when the vessels encountered the remnants of Hurricane Ida. (Courtesy Titan Maritime LLC)

A 580-foot container barge being towed from Puerto Rico to New Jersey broke loose from its tugboat in high winds and heavy seas, then was pushed nearly 100 miles by the storm before grounding on a Virginia beach.

La Princesa was en route from San Juan to Pennsauken, N.J., at 2300 on Nov. 12, 2009, when the crew of the tug Sentry notified the U.S. Coast Guard that the barge had broken free about 30 miles northeast of Virginia’s Cape Charles Lighthouse.

Mark Miller, a spokesman for Crowley Maritime Corp., the owner of the tug and barge, said two 2.25-inch steel towlines linking the vessels parted in 25-foot seas and winds of more than 45 knots. La Princesa was being towed about 2,000 feet behind the 128-foot, 7,200-hp Sentry, with the lines secured to the stern of the tug and bow of the barge.

Miller said the six-man crew of Sentry did not anticipate the speed at which the nor’easter — the remnants of Hurricane Ida — moved up the coast, and caught them from behind.

“The tug and barge were probably 30 to 40 miles from the sea buoy marking the entrance to Delaware Bay, which was the last leg of the journey,†he said. “The first (towline) parted, and then the second one couldn’t take the strain of all the adverse weather they were being hit with.â€

Lt. Jack Smith, a spokesman for Coast Guard Sector Hampton Roads, said that after the storm caught up to the vessels, the winds became so strong that the tug couldn’t make headway.

“Finally the winds caused the barge to break free,†Smith said. “The tug then turned and shadowed the barge, but without the two cables the tug had no ability of getting the barge back.â€

La Princesa ran aground on the beach in the Sandbridge area of Virginia Beach at about 0600 on Nov. 13. Strong winds and seas continued to buffet the vessel, pushing it slowly through the sand.

“At that point the big threat was that the barge was moving south along the coast, and it was threatening to hit the Sandbridge fishing pier,†Smith said.

La Princesa’s cargo was also an issue. Many of the containers aboard the barge were empty, but others carried pharmaceuticals, medical equipment and concentrated rum. Smith said the rum was considered hazardous because of its flammability.

Around noon on Nov. 13, a Coast Guard helicopter lowered two salvage employees from Titan Maritime LLC onto the deck of La Princesa. They opened two ballast tanks to flood the compartments, which stopped the barge from moving, Smith said.

After the weather subsided, the ballast was pumped out on Nov. 17 and tugs began to pull the barge out of the sand.

“Initially three tugboats were involved, hooked up and pulling on the barge Tuesday night (Nov. 17) at high tide,†Miller said. “One of the lines to one of the tugboats parted, leaving two tugs — one on the bow and one on the stern — to continue pulling. They made some progress on Tuesday night, then at first light on Wednesday, which was also high tide, the two remaining tugs were able to pull it off the beach.â€

La Princesa sustained minor damage in the grounding, Miller said, but it was allowed to continue to its destination after being inspected off Lynnhaven Inlet by the Coast Guard and Crowley personnel.

“There was a void tank on the bottom of the barge toward the stern that had cracked, a couple of small skegs back there that had cracked, and water was in there,†he said. “The void tank is not critical to the overall seaworthiness of the vessel, but it is one thing that will need to be repaired.â€

Rich Miller

By Professional Mariner Staff