Bridge hit leads to license suspension

The experienced captain operating the towing vessel Sara Kaitlin had his license suspended for six months after a crane he was towing damaged a South Carolina bridge. The captain’s employer will pay a fine and have its hiring practices monitored by the Coast Guard.

The Coast Guard charged Sara Kaitlin’s operator with negligence and misconduct after the April 2007 accident involving the McTeer Bridge, near Beaufort, S.C., (PM #106).

Sara Kaitlin was towing a crane barge in the Intracoastal Waterway when the boom, which was not stowed properly, struck the bridge. The bridge had major damage to several steel underside-support beams, forcing the state to close U.S. Route 21 for five days.

The bridge, which traverses the Beaufort River, has 65 feet of air draft at high tide. The crane’s boom is 110 feet high but stows to about half of that length.

Just before Sara Kaitlin transited the bridge, the crane was used to reposition anchoring spuds on another barge while two tugboats split a tow. The 62-foot-long Sara Kaitlin is owned by Savannah Marine Services Inc. The vessel was transporting dredge equipment from Charleston, S.C., to Savannah, Ga.

The tugboat captain is responsible for determining that all equipment in tow can fit under a bridge, said Lt. Andrew Bender, Coast Guard senior investigations officer for Sector Charleston.

“In this case, it apparently wasn’t done,†Bender said. “When you’re checking your water draft and your air draft, it’s a matter of accountability for the master. Apparently he was looking forward, lining up his tow, and he didn’t stop entirely to make sure that everything is clear and didn’t look back to make sure that the crane was lower than the bridge.â€

The captain was not licensed to operate a tug the size of Sara Kaitlin, which is 112 gross tons. Bender said the captain possessed a master’s license to operate a vessel of 100 gross tons or less. He needed a towing endorsement, and didn’t have it, Bender said.

At the time, the captain was permitted to serve only as an apprentice mate on Sara Kaitlin. That status requires constant supervision, Bender said.

The captain also failed to report the incident to the Coast Guard immediately. The accident was first reported by police.

In a settlement with the Coast Guard, the captain had his license suspended for six months and will attend a bridge resource management class.

A mariner who was the actual master of Sara Kaitlin but was not on the bridge was charged with one count of negligence and two counts of misconduct.

That mariner reached a settlement with the Coast Guard and agreed to a one-month restricted status, which allowed him to operate a vessel only in a certain area near the company’s docks in the Savannah River. He is serving 12 months probation.

A third mariner, who was on another vessel, received a six-month license suspension for operating outside the scope of his license. The Coast Guard gave the man a two-month outright suspension, with the remaining four months stayed.

Savannah Marine Services, based in Savannah, will be fined as much as $75,000. The company was charged with negligence, employing a mariner to operate beyond the scope of his license and running a voyage of greater than 24 hours with only one properly credentialed mariner.

The company also is participating in the Coast Guard’s enhanced monitoring program to ensure that it is employing only properly licensed mariners.

Savannah Marine Services is cooperating with the Coast Guard in monitoring its mariners’ credentials, said William Van Puffelen, the company’s port captain. Van Puffelen said it has been difficult for “a small family-owned company†to keep up with all of the new Coast Guard regulations, but he acknowledged that “ignorance of the law is no excuse.â€

“We knew about the master towing endorsement. The company memo was sent out in 2006. But (for) people who renewed early, it wasn’t put on their license and there were a lot of problems with that,†Van Puffelen said. “Trust me, we know what the law is now.â€

Bender said it was the crane contractor’s staff — not Savannah Marine Services crew — who failed to stow the crane properly. Nevertheless, the Coast Guard holds licensed mariners on such a voyage responsible, he said.

By Professional Mariner Staff