Barge with housing destined for Haiti lost after tug loses propulsion off Cuba

An oceangoing barge carrying housing supplies for Haiti earthquake victims was lost after its tugboat stalled and a line parted while a Cuban salvage ship attempted to tow the stranded vessels to safety.

The crew of nine from the tug Muheet, including one U.S. resident, were held in Cuba against their will for five weeks after the rescue. The U.S. Coast Guard denied a report that it had asked for permission to enter Cuban waters to assist the tow but that Cuba wouldn't allow it.

A barge is under tow during a voyage to deliver humanitarian supplies to Haiti earthquake victims. The vessel eventually sank during a salvage operation in Cuban waters after the tugboat Muheet stalled due to a fuel problem. Photo courtesy Harbor Homes LLC)

The 60-year-old tug lost power while sailing with two barges between the Bahamas and Haiti on Nov. 30, 2010. The vessels, which were transporting enough materials for 1,000 temporary houses, had originated their voyage in Jacksonville, Fla.

The Bolivian-flagged Muheet made an unexpected stop in the Bahamas to take on more fuel because of a higher-than-expected burn rate during the difficult voyage, said Matt Williams, a spokesman at Harbor Homes LLC, which chartered the vessels. The 94-foot tug was able to make only 3 knots, half the speed the crew expected.

Williams said the new load of fuel was either an insufficient volume or was contaminated. Muheet lost propulsion in international waters between the Bahamas and Haiti. Adrift for 18 hours, the helpless vessels eventually drifted into Cuban waters.

"The engines were starved for fuel, and they couldn't run under their own power," Williams said. "The tugboat was completely stalled."

The larger barge was about 250 feet long. A military surplus causeway barge was pulled behind it. The cargo included 16,000 sheets of plywood, six tractors and trailers and a 25-ton bulldozer.

In a statement, Thomasville, Ga.-based Harbor Homes said the U.S. Coast Guard informed the Muheet crew that the Coast Guard had asked permission to enter Cuban waters to rescue the vessels. The Cuban government denied the request, promising that it had sufficient salvage vessels to get the job done, the company said.

Cuban authorities on Dec. 1 sent a salvage ship from the port of Moa, near Cuba's eastern tip.

"They coupled up to our vessels," Williams said. "According to our crew, (the Cuban vessel) took off with such a start that the towline snapped."

The barges then broke loose from Muheet and drifted near Baracoa, Cuba. "The large barge sank, and the other barge was damaged and recovered and taken into port," Williams said.

The U.S. Coast Guard said it had an aircraft and cutters in the region on routine patrol looking for Haitian migrants. Those craft were put on standby in case a rescue response was needed for the Muheet crew, even in Cuban waters, said Capt. Peter Brown, chief of response at Coast Guard District 7 in Florida.

"We can only do that if people's lives are in danger … not vessels and cargo," Brown said. "If a scenario arose where a rescue response were required in Cuban waters, we would notify (Cuba) — not ask for permission — and we would just go in. … The government of Cuba told us they had sufficient resources and could be there in a timely manner to assist the vessel."

Muheet's crew consisted of mostly Latin Americans. The first mate was a U.K. national who is a U.S. permanent resident living in Florida, Williams said. After the tugboat was towed to port in Cuba, the crew was held for five weeks while the parties negotiated the return of the tug and causeway barge.

Williams said a fuel problem was almost certainly the root cause of the power loss. To sail home from Cuba, Muheet required refueling only — no significant repairs.

"It is possible that the engineer miscalculated the amount of fuel they had in the vessel (or) the measurement was correct but the fuel was contaminated by water," Williams said. The third possibility is perhaps there was a problem with the fuel filters."

Because the casualty did not involve U.S. mariners, vessels, territorial waters or rescue assets, the U.S. Coast Guard has not opened a casualty investigation. The tugboat owner, whose name was unavailable, is part of a family that is a major operator at the Port-au-Prince port.

When the tugboat arrived at Jacksonville to load the aid cargo, an inspection revealed numerous deficiencies and hazards, according to documents on the Coast Guard's Port State Information Exchange website. Muheet didn't have sufficient charts, radio, signaling lamp, firefighting gear, anchor lights, dayshapes, loadline or proof of survey. There was no watch-keeping schedule. It needed a bilge pump, railings, rescue boat and inflatable life raft.

A flag surveyor reviewed all the new equipment and approved it for a single voyage to Haiti, according to the Coast Guard records. Harbor Homes ended up paying for all of the repairs, Williams said.

To make matters worse for Harbor Homes, insurer Lloyd's of London refuses to pay a claim on the lost cargo, claiming that the tugboat, built in 1940, was unseaworthy.

"The age of the tug is wholly irrelevant to the mishap," Williams said. "Not only did the Coast Guard give its standard clearance to sail, they went over it with a fine-toothed comb and made sure it was seaworthy."

Last but not least, the suffering Haitian people have lost out on much-needed shelter, at least for now. The supplies would have served as transitional housing for Haitians who are still living in tents as a result of the 2010 earthquake, said Dean Owen, a World Vision spokesman. Other equipment lost on the barge included metal roofing, doors and generators, he said.

Currently, the financial loss belongs to Harbor Homes under the terms of the World Vision contract. Owen said the two organizations continue doing business together, and additional housing shipments are planned.

"We're hopeful that this will be resolved," Owen said. "One way or the other, we will make sure these houses are built," perhaps through additional private donations or government aid.

The lost barge and cargo were worth $2 million, Harbor Homes said.

"It was unfortunate, because there was plenty of time to obviate this tragedy," Williams said.

By Professional Mariner Staff