Bulk carrier loses steering, runs aground in St. Lawrence River


A steering failure caused a bulk carrier loaded with sugar to run aground under the Thousand Islands Bridge.

Juno, a 621-foot Bahamian-flagged ship en route to Toronto, ran hard aground April 20 in the St. Lawrence River in the vicinity of Wellesley Island on the New York side.

A steering loss, attributed to a failed PLC contact block, caused the incident, according to Doug Eggleston, a civilian inspector and the lead investigating officer from the U.S. Coast Guard’s Marine Safety Detachment in Massena, N.Y.

The mishap closed the American Narrows to navigation from 0417 on April 20 until 0800 on April 22, according to Nancy Alcalde, director of congressional and public relations for the Saint Lawrence Seaway Development Corp. (SLSDC). 

During that closure — a period of 51 hours and 43 minutes — 13 ships were affected. Eight downbound and two upbound vessels were stopped as a direct result of the grounding. Three downbound vessels were later affected due to traffic management involved in resuming navigation.

Juno, owned and operated by Polska Zegluga Morska, of Szczecin, Poland (Polsteam USA), ran aground just under the Thousand Islands Bridge but never made contact with the bridge, Eggleston said. The vessel took on 18 feet of water in one of its forward ballast tanks and was listing slightly to port. The tanks were empty prior to grounding, so there was no pollution and no one was injured, the Coast Guard said.

At 0110 on April 20, a watch stander at Coast Guard Sector Buffalo received a report from the SLSDC of a bulk carrier hard aground under the Thousand Islands Bridge.

Eggleston said he was the first to respond, boarding the ship at approximately 0230, followed shortly thereafter by SLSDC personnel. A crew from Coast Guard Station Alexandria Bay responded to enforce the waterway closure and monitor the situation.

Although Juno’s crew had reported a steering loss, the problem wasn’t evident right away, Eggleston said.

“You never try to say right away ‘this is what caused it,’” he said. “There are so many systems on board, you have to go through methodically to narrow down what caused it.”

In this case, Eggleston said the cause was “not in the open.”

“It was inside a cabinet up behind a lot of wires and stuff,” he said. “It’s definitely not something I expected. I suspected a bad hydraulic pump or something like that.”

Ultimately, a service technician from Montreal discovered the faulty PLC contact block.

“Think of your computer, the ribbon wire with all the connections,” Eggleston explained. “The mounting block for that was broken and it enabled the ribbon assembly to fall off, so they put on a new one.

After losing control, the 621-foot ship drifted to its starboard side, left. 

Photos courtesy U.S. Coast Guard

“Once (the technician) put on the new part, it was fixed. … It’s like plugging in one of those multiple relays in a car, but obviously way more technical.”

Eggleston, a veteran investigative officer, said he had never seen the problem before.

“I’m not sure why it failed,” Eggleston said, citing an ongoing investigation. “There’s lots of possibilities. It could have been an initial installation thing. That’s all still being looked at.”

Polsteam’s U.S. office in New York referred questions to spokesman Krzysztof Gogol at the company’s headquarters in Poland. Gogol did not respond. 

John Hulslander, chief of investigations at Coast Guard Sector Buffalo, said the bulk carrier was built in 2010, with Polsteam USA taking delivery in 2011. He called Polsteam a well-known operator with no apparent history of problems.

Eggleston said the American Narrows, where the grounding occurred, is a particularly difficult area to navigate. 

“The problem with that stretch of the river is that when something goes wrong, you’re in a channel that’s as wide as (the ship) is long,” Eggleston said. “The pilot has 30 to 60 seconds to decide what action they’re going to take.

“I can tell you that the people who take vessels through there are very skilled individuals. I wouldn’t want to put a percentage on the number of problems that happen there, but more often than not, when something happens, it’s in that area of the river.”

Juno was refloated at 0700 on April 22 with the aid of Svitzer Salvage of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Quebec City-based Group Ocean, which sent two tugs to the scene: the 4,000-hp Ocean Georgie Bain and the 5,000-hp Ocean Ross Gaudreault.

The SLSDC reopened the American Narrows to full navigation an hour later.

Juno was taken to Wilson Hill anchorage for evaluation, Hulslander said.

“They got it safe and out of the channel to assess it,” Hulslander said. “Some things were pointed out that were suspect that we have to look more in-depth at.”

A unified command, consisting of the U.S. Coast Guard, Canadian Coast Guard, SLSDC, St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corp., Polsteam USA, Seaway Traffic, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and Jefferson County collaborated to manage the incident.

“Everyone was very responsible and forthcoming to get the boat under way,” Hulslander said. “It was a good collaborative effort.”

The vessel was eventually cleared to complete its voyage, delivering its cargo of sugar to the Port of Toronto.

By Professional Mariner Staff