Coast Guard notes ‘overconfidence bias’ of docking pilot before crash

The U.S. Coast Guard has focused on the behavior of a docking pilot in its probe of a 2011 collision between a containership and a tank barge near New Jersey’s Bergen Point.

The 958-foot Maersk Wisconsin collided with the empty 390-foot barge RTC 102, which was being pushed by the tug Ruth M. Reinauer near the Bayonne Bridge on Dec. 5, 2011. The box ship was southbound on Newark Bay, while the tugboat was westbound on Kill Van Kull.

The accident happened in foggy conditions during a flood tide at 0215. A port-to-port passing arrangement had been established, with a member of McAllister Docking Pilots holding up Maersk Wisconsin west of the Bayonne Bridge to allow the tow to pass on channel’s north side.

When the vessels met each other, however, the containership encroached into Ruth M. Reinauer’s path, the tug pilot reported. There wasn’t enough space to pass and, despite both vessels attempting to back down, a collision occurred.

“In addition to the weather, the communications played a very big role,” investigator Chief Warrant Officer Jim Gillette said. “It sounded like maybe a misunderstanding.”

Two port-side ballast tanks were holed in the barge and there was damage to the deck edge and railings. The ship had dents at its starboard bow. The Coast Guard said the total damage was more than $500,000.

In its investigative report, the Coast Guard cited an “overconfidence bias” with regard to the docking pilot, who failed to reduce the risk by maintaining better communication with Ruth M. Reinauer and utilizing his escort tug.

“The docking pilot confidently kept the Maersk Wisconsin on position without attempt to re-establish communications with the Ruth Reinauer to change passing agreement or to use tug assistance to move vessel deeper in the channel until collision was imminent,” investigators wrote.

According to the radio transcript, the docking pilot had asked Ruth M. Reinauer to “hug the reds,” i.e., stay as close as possible to the north-side channel markers. He suggested that they pass on the west side of the bridge. “We are sitting comfortable here,” the pilot said. “We will give you room to go around.”

But the Coast Guard said the docking pilot may have simultaneously attempted to position the ship for the bridge transit that would take place after Ruth M. Reinauer passed by. He used lights on the Bayonne Bridge as a guide to do that. “Lining up the vessel put them in northern part of the channel,” the report stated.

The 4,720-hp Ruth M. Reinauer was approaching at 6 knots on the flood tide. The Coast Guard said the docking pilot knew that Maersk Wisconsin was “closer to the reds than they wanted to be” and made one attempt to notify Ruth M. Reinauer by radio. When the tug didn’t respond, possibly due to other radio transmissions, the pilot didn’t broadcast the message a second time.

By the time Ruth M. Reinauer’s captain saw the ship, it was blocking the tow’s path along the red channel markers.

“You’re turning right into me, captain,” the tug operator said. To which the ship’s docking pilot responded, “Yeah, we’re all stopped here, captain.”

The Coast Guard said the docking pilot should have used the assist tug when the risk was recognized.

“The Maersk also had a vessel (tug Bohemia) following her in the channel. There was no attempt to go astern to make sure there would be enough room for the passing originally agreed upon,” the investigators wrote.

The ship “had tug assistance and could have reasonably been expected to move the vessel to allow enough room for the tug to transit by,” they wrote later. No attempt was made “to switch to a starboard or two whistle meeting which would have allowed both vessels to share the channel.”

The Coast Guard did not specify a probable cause of the accident. Gillette said there was no enforcement action.

In a statement to investigators, the docking pilot said Maersk Wisconsin was in “our proper position in relation to the channel” and a lookout reported to him that the tow encroached on the ship’s side of the channel. The docking pilot attributed the accident to “excessive speed in fog by the Ruth Reinauer and failure of the Ruth Reinauer to hold back for large outbound ships.”

The ship’s operator, Maersk Line Ltd., will not comment on the accident, said spokesman Timothy Simpson. Ruth M. Reinauer’s operator, Reinauer Transportation, declined comment. The McAllister Docking Pilots did not reply.

Captains must honor passing arrangements and stay in touch, particularly when fog impairs the ability to see the other vessel, the report said.

“Ships’ equipment provide many options to travel safely,” the report said. “Communications between vessels should be expected and agreements should be followed with the greatest of detail when visibility is reduced.”

By Professional Mariner Staff