Bulker grounds in thick fog just as pilots decide to close channel

The U.S. Coast Guard is investigating whether human error was a factor in the grounding of a bulk carrier in Florida’s Hillsborough Bay.

The 575-foot Pollux ran aground roughly 50 yards outside a shipping channel in heavy fog at about 2315 on Jan. 2. The grounding occurred about two miles east of Gadsden Point and about one mile from shore. A Tampa Bay pilot was on board.

Lt. Christian Barger, chief of investigations at Coast Guard Sector St. Petersburg, said his agency has ruled out mechanical failure as cause for the incident, but not human error.

“That is certainly one of those elements we are looking at, as well as other causal factors like weather, operating conditions, communication and actions by personnel,” Barger said. “Usually multiple things have to take place for an incident like this to occur.”

Pollux, a Malta-flagged vessel operated by German shipping company Johann M. K. Blumenthal, was carrying a load of fertilizer from Galveston Bay, Texas, en route to Tampa Bay when it ran aground in water charted at between 16 and 17 feet deep.

“They grounded outside of the channel,” said Lt. Lincoln Puffer, chief of port state control for the Coast Guard in Florida, who added that the matter was still under investigation. “Tampa Bay is extremely shallow outside the channel. I don’t want to speculate, but (it appears) the fog caused the pilot to lose his bearings and drive the ship outside the channel.”

The vessel was unescorted when it ran aground, in calm winds and calm seas, the Coast Guard said. Puffer said the pilots closed the shipping channel shortly after Pollux entered the bay.

“They were in the process of closing it as (the fog) was setting in. This vessel was already inbound when it happened and they really didn’t have a choice” but to let them continue to port, he said.

Allen Thompson, executive director of the Tampa Bay Pilots Association, declined to comment on the incident, citing the ongoing investigation. Galen Dunton, a consultant with Florida State Pilots Association, the agency that investigates casualties involving pilots, also would not comment.

Puffer said Pollux, a double-hulled geared bulker built in Japan in 2007, was freed roughly 24 hours after it became stuck in the soft sands that line Tampa Bay. Engineers from the Coast Guard’s Marine Safety Center were called in to determine how much weight needed to be removed to free the vessel.

“They figured out they needed to offload x-amount of ballast, the vessel did so, and they were able to back up” with help from assist tugs, Puffer said. The crew and the shipping company’s qualified individual also assisted in refloating the ship.

Nobody was hurt in the grounding, and vessel traffic in and around Tampa Bay was not affected, the Coast Guard said. The grounding did not result in any pollution.

The ship itself was not seriously damaged in the incident. The Coast Guard said Pollux entered port, offloaded its cargo and left shortly after a bottom survey was completed.

The Johann M. K. Blumenthal company did not return an e-mail seeking comment.

Casey Conley

By Professional Mariner Staff