Block Island ferry and Coast Guard tug collide in heavy fog

Federal officials are investigating why a U.S. Coast Guard vessel collided with a Block Island ferry in heavy fog in July.

The ferry Block Island exhibits damage to its bow, which included dents and a crack.  (Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)

The Coast Guard cutter Morro Bay and the ferry Block Island banged into each other three miles north of Block Island, R.I., at 1215 on July 2. The impact dented both vessels, but there was no major damage and no one was injured.

Morro Bay is classified as an icebreaking tug but serves as a buoy tender during the warmer months.

The car ferry was coming from Point Judith, R.I., and was southbound when the accident happened. The 140-foot cutter was westbound after departing Newport, R.I., where it had docked for a change-of-command ceremony the previous day, the Coast Guard said. Morro Bay was headed back to its home port of New London, Conn., when it encountered Block Island in the fog.

Morro Bay sustained a dent on its starboard side.  (Photo courtesy National Transportation Safety Board)

Block Island sustained a 44-inch-long dent and a small crack on its bow 5 feet above the waterline. The 187-foot, all-season ferry was able to continue its voyage to Block Island with its 257 passengers and eight crew. Morro Bay had a smaller dent on its starboard side just aft of amidships, said Coast Guard spokeswoman Petty Officer 2nd Class Lauren Jorgensen.

The National Transportation Safety Board and Coast Guard are investigating the cause of the collision. Visibility was 200 yards, the Coast Guard said.

The NTSB investigator in charge, Capt. Rob Jones, said both crews seemed to have been unaware of the other vessel until shortly before the impact. Both bridge details were busy making operational adjustments to cope with the suddenly increasing fog.

“They ran into a thickening fog out there,†Jones said. “Visibility kept deteriorating, and it shut down pretty fast.â€

Jones said there was no radio contact between the vessels before the collision. The NTSB is investigating the quality of radar images that both crews were using. After the fog rolled in, the officers aboard Morro Bay said they began sounding their horn — one prolonged blast every two minutes. They didn’t hear any blasts from the ferry until the last moment. The ferry crew reported that they never heard any horn signals from the cutter.

“The Coast Guard vessel did hear one prolonged blast coming from the ferry prior to the collision,†Jones said. “They looked to the starboard side, and they did see the ferry maybe a few hundred yards away. Once the captain of the cutter saw the ferry, he had his engineer pull back full, and he sounded three shorts (indicating) that his vessel was going astern.â€

Before the fog began posing a problem, the Coast Guard lieutenant who was serving his first day under way as Morro Bay’s commanding officer went below for a scheduled lunch break. When conditions worsened, the commander was summoned back to the controls.

“They were in the process of going into restricted-visibility mode,†Jones said of the cutter officers. “The chief on the bridge called the captain back up, and that’s when they heard the whistle from the ferry.â€

The Coast Guard said there was a southwesterly wind of 10 to 15 knots at the time of the accident. Seas were 2 to 3 feet.

The cutter, which had been cruising at 12 knots before the fog created a hazard, slowed to 9 knots when visibility decreased and was continuing to decelerate when it encountered the ferry, Jones said. The ferry, which routinely operates in poor visibility, may have maintained its normal speed of 14.5 knots, he said.

Jones said NTSB investigators subsequently rode the ferry in similar foggy conditions and found no problems with its two Furuno radars, electronic charts or global positioning system (GPS). The investigators had not yet scheduled a similar inspection of the Coast Guard cutter.

The ferry operator, Interstate Navigation of Narragansett, R.I., said there were no mechanical malfunctions on Block Island.

“All the equipment we had was in good working order,†said Christian Myers, Interstate’s chief of vessel operations.

Jorgensen would not provide information on the cutter’s navigation equipment.

Three people were present on the ferry’s bridge at the time of the collision — two operators and one off-duty employee who is not a professional mariner. Jones said the NTSB would investigate whether the third person should have been there. Six people were on the cutter’s bridge.

The NTSB is also checking into how the cutter and ferry deployed their deck hands during the restricted-visibility period. The cutter had a crew of 18.

“They had what they said were lookouts, and we’re going to look a little further to see if they were the proper number and in the proper locations,†Jones said of both vessels.

Crewmembers from both vessels were tested for alcohol and drug use. Results were not immediately available.

Morro Bay proceeded to New London, where the cutter docked for previously scheduled maintenance, Jorgensen said.

Block Island sailed up Narragansett Bay to Promet Marine Services in Providence for a temporary repair to its bow. It was back in service two days later for the Fourth of July. Myers said a permanent repair would be scheduled for September.

“The Coast Guard did an outstanding job of working with us in getting the vessel back into service from a marine-safety and inspection perspective,†Myers said. “They approved the temporary repair very quickly.â€

Jones said the bridge officers on both vessels acted in a manner that probably prevented a more serious collision. Both the cutter and the ferry backed down. The westbound cutter turned toward port; the southbound ferry may have turned a bit toward starboard.

“I think they averted it as best they could,†Jones said.

Jorgensen said the Marine Safety Office for Sector Southeastern New England at Woods Hole, Mass., is conducting the Coast Guard’s investigation.

By Professional Mariner Staff