Boaters killed after striking tug’s towline

Two men on a recreational boat were killed when their vessel capsized after striking a towline between a tugboat and a barge in Lower New York Bay.

The Coast Guard said the casualty happened at 2254 on Oct. 20 in Ambrose Channel, about six miles from the Brooklyn shoreline.

The 24-foot Baha Cruiser sport fisher, which was westbound, got too close to the outbound tug Melvin Lemmerhirt, which was towing a 266-foot barge full of dredge spoil, the Coast Guard said.

Melvin Lemmerhirt, a 117-foot, 3,400-hp tug, was using an 880-foot towline to pull the scow, said Coast Guard investigator Chief Warrant Officer Chris Bisignano.
Witnesses reported that the tug master made several attempts to signal the boater to stay clear, including radio transmission, horn blasts and a spotlight.

“Originally the vessel was going to cross (the tug’s) bow, so he got on the radio” but there was no response from the boaters, Bisignano said. “Then he flashed his lights, and that got his attention, and (the boater) turned to the right to get along the port side of the tug and then he turned to the left. … The pleasure boat hit the towline. … The deck hand who was on watch saw the vessel hit the wire.”

After studying the scrape marks on the boat, Bisignano came to the conclusion that the towline pushed the boat’s bow into the air and turned the boat sharply to starboard. The tug master reported that he immediately slowed the tug, but momentum caused the barge to ram the Baha Cruiser, Bisignano said.

The pleasure boat capsized. Three people were trapped in the cabin, while a fourth was thrown into the water. The fourth person was able to swim back to the capsized boat and climb on top of the hull. He was rescued by the 70-foot Captain Dave, a nearby fishing charter that rushed to the scene after its captain heard about the crash on the radio.
New York City police divers pulled the three other men from the boat’s cabin. One survived but two had drowned, police said.

The pleasure boat’s home port was Atlantic Highlands, N.J. The four New Jersey men were returning from an evening fishing excursion in the bay.

The Staten Island-based Melvin Lemmerhirt is owned by Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co. of Oak Brook, Ill.

Bisignano said all lights on the tug and barge were working properly at the time of the incident. He said it’s possible that in the dark the recreational boaters could not see the towline, portions of which may have been underwater.

The Coast Guard said none of the four boaters was wearing a life jacket.

The Coast Guard runs a program called Operation Clear Channel that educates recreational boaters about the dangers of getting too close to commercial vessels. Through brochures and live presentations, Coast Guard personnel ask boaters to use common sense to avoid loitering in narrow shipping channels and to steer clear of the larger ships and tugboats.

“When I’m driving my car, I always give plenty of room to the 18-wheelers,” Bisignano said.

One aspect of Operation Clear Channel warns boaters there is a towline between tugs and barges, so they should never go between the tug and barge.

The Coast Guard Auxiliary will even send a boat out to meet up with a recreational vessel when professional mariners complain about the conduct of that vessel.

By Professional Mariner Staff