Captain of tug and fuel barge that ran aground not at fault, investigator concludes

The U.S. Coast Guard investigator in charge has recommended that no action be taken against the captain of a 76-foot tugboat that ran aground while pushing a fuel barge in Jamaica Bay, N.Y., on May 18, 2008.

“There was no enforcement action taken against the mariner. I did not find fault that directly caused the vessel to go aground," said the investigator, Chief Warrant Officer Chris Bisignano.

The tug Inland Sea was carrying 5,110 gallons of diesel fuel and was pushing the 272-foot barge Essex. Both are owned by K-Sea Transportation of East Brunswick, N.J. They were en route to the Exxon Mobil facility in Inwood, N.Y., when they grounded on soft mud at Grass Hassock Channel. Both vessels floated off the mud at high tide the next morning without assistance and with no fuel spilled.

Bisignano said the tug ran aground at 2140, at the point where the channel curves at the “M" buoy. The channel there is about 19 feet deep, but at its edge the depth drops to 6 feet with a muddy bottom. The draft of the tug is 9 feet 6 inches and the barge was drawing 4 feet 6 inches forward and 6 feet 2 inches aft.

“He was making a left turn around a buoy," Bisignano said. “It’s kind of a tight little area for a tug and a barge to go through. The tides were ebbing. Basically when they made the turn, the tug was in the notch and he made his turn and his starboard prop cut the mud, causing the engine to stall. He tried to restart and could not. The way the tides were and the winds, it pushed him right over and the tug went aground first; and then the barge, which was not full, went aground a little bit later, because the water was getting shallower."

The barge, partially loaded with 10,600 barrels of ethanol, went aground at 2310. Low tide was 0245.

When the tug hit the mud, the wind was blowing 10 to 15 knots, visibility was one to three miles and the current was ebbing at 1 knot. The tug and barge had come down the Hudson River from Newburgh. “The plan was to go in the morning, but when he looked at the weather report he decided to go in that night," Bisignano said.

None of the crewmembers on watch were intoxicated, he said. There were no equipment problems and the aids to navigation were checked and verified. There were no chart corrections or reports of changes in depth in the previous six months, he said. “Both the engineer and the master had made this trip over 20 times," Bisignano said.

When the tide came in, the 2,000 hp tug floated free and its engines were tested while another tug stood by. By the time the tug had completed its engine tests, the barge had floated free so the tug went back into the notch and the two vessels continued to their destination. The only damage was some paint scrapes on the tug, the investigator said.

Bill Sullivan, manager of K-Sea’s New York Division, said, “It’s a narrow channel through a marsh, but we hadn’t noticed any shoaling. It can be difficult to navigate, but we do run through there quite frequently." He said the captain has about 30 years of experience in that area.

Sullivan said the company found no reason to change its procedures after doing its own soundings in the channel. “In that particular area you have to be cognizant of the winds in the way you’re getting set in that turn. You go in there with a reduced load so you have a lot of freeboard on the barge."

Bisignano said his preliminary report has been forwarded to the Coast Guard commandant in Washington.

Bill Bleyer

By Professional Mariner Staff