Barge runs into shorefront homes after tug master falls asleep

An empty gravel barge careened into several waterfront homes near Gig Harbor, Wash., after the tugboat’s captain fell asleep at the controls. 

Shoreside homes and property near Gig Harbor, Wash., were damaged after being struck by a barge just after sunrise on March 15.

The 71-foot, 1,800-hp Island Chief was pushing the barge south in the Colvos Passage when it veered toward land at about 0715 on March 15. The barge hit one house and damaged decks and property at two other homes before coming to a stop along the shore.

“The report was he took the watch at 0600 and then fell asleep,” U.S. Coast Guard spokesman Trevor Lilburn said in a phone interview. “That is what (the captain) reported.”

There were no injuries or pollution, and the tug and unidentified barge were not damaged. The Coast Guard is investigating but has not issued a final report, which likely won’t be available for many months.

Cmdr. Nathan Menefee, chief of prevention at Sector Puget Sound, described the incident as “very concerning.” The sector will investigate “to determine the cause and whether additional actions are necessary to prevent a similar incident in the future,” he said.

Island Chief, owned by Seattle-based Island Tug & Barge Co., operated with a crew of four mariners. The master worked a standard six-on, six-off watch rotation that meets Coast Guard rest requirements.

The incident happened just after sunrise on an otherwise calm morning on Puget Sound as the tow headed to an anchorage near DuPont, Wash. Video taken by a property owner recorded the sounds of crashing in the moments before the barge entered the frame. It moved slowly and appeared to bounce off a rocky wall along the waterfront. The barge stopped about 100 feet south of the damaged properties. 

“Because of the location of where it went aground, it went straight in and struck the bulkhead and three homes that sat right at the water’s edge,” said Tina Curran, spokeswoman for Gig Harbor Fire & Medic One. “One of the homes was damaged to the point where it needed structural support.”

“It was kind of heading in and then hit and kind of scraped alongside,” she said of the impact. 

Erik Ellefsen, general manager of Island Tug & Barge, acknowledged the tug captain dozed just moments before the barge came ashore. He said the captain awoke after the barge’s first contact with land and took steps to minimize damage.

“His evasive maneuvers once things happened saved people from being hurt and further property damage and environmental impact,” Ellefsen said in a phone interview.

The tugboat released the barge after it stopped along the beach while puzzled property owners shouted questions to the crew, trying to understand what happened. Island Chief ultimately pulled the barge to deeper water and re-established the tow before returning to Seattle.

Authorities did not release an estimated cost of damage. Island Tug & Barge is working with the affected property owners to facilitate repairs, Ellefsen said. 

“Our main focus now is to repair the damage to the homes as quickly as we are allowed to,” he said on March 17. “We have already begun that process, and are deeply grateful for the cooperation we have had with the residents involved.”

By Professional Mariner Staff