Crew rescued, fuel escapes as tugboat sinks off Puerto Rico

Proassist Iii

Three mariners escaped from a 71-year-old tugboat before it sank near the port of Yabucoa, Puerto Rico, on Christmas Eve.

The 111-foot Proassist III started taking on water during the early evening on Dec. 24 while returning to Yabucoa. Crew issued a mayday call at about 1700 when the vessel was 2 miles from the harbor, located on the island’s east side. 

Proassist Iii
The crew of a fishing vessel rescued the three mariners aboard Proassist III, above, as the tug tried to make it back to port while taking on water on Christmas Eve near Yabucoa, Puerto Rico.

“The crew realized the vessel was listing and that water was inside. They were having difficulty getting rid of it, to the point that (the tug) ended up sinking,” U.S. Coast Guard spokesman Ricardo Castrodad said in a phone interview. 

Crew aboard the fishing vessel Sal Pa Fuera rescued the tugboat’s three mariners before the vessel went under. There were no injuries, but an unknown quantity of diesel escaped the tugboat, which had about 1,100 gallons on board.

Coast Guard air crews spotted sheening where the vessel sank roughly a quarter mile from the harbor entrance. There were no impacts to the shoreline or wildlife, Castrodad said.

The 3,000-hp, U.S.-flagged Proassist III was built in 1949. It is part of the American Tugs Inc. fleet that provides ship handling and rescue towing around Puerto Rico. American Tugs did not respond to an inquiry seeking comment on the sinking. 

Proassist III typically assists ships calling the Port of Yabucoa, home to a large fuel terminal. The tug was underway without any vessels in tow when it encountered trouble while returning from Guayama, roughly 30 miles away, on the island’s south side. 

It’s not clear when the vessel began taking on water, how soon the crew recognized the problem and what steps they took to counter it. Crew continued toward Yabucoa after issuing the mayday call and nearly made it back. 

“Between the moment they realized they were taking on water to the moment they were back in Yabucoa was about two hours,” Castrodad said. “They were working to contain the situation but also making arrangements to abandon the vessel.”

Photos released by the Coast Guard show a life raft that was deployed at some point during the episode. The tug’s captain deployed the raft, although it is unclear if the crew took refuge in it before embarking onto the good Samaritan vessel. 

Proassist III sank in about 27 feet of water outside the main shipping channel, Coast Guard Chief Warrant Officer Daniell Lashbrook said. Divers plugged vents on the tug to prevent remaining fuel from escaping.

As of mid-January, Castrodad said the Coast Guard and tug company were still working to finalize a plan to salvage the vessel.

Casey Conley

By Professional Mariner Staff