Crewman lost at sea when Florida-based tug sinks off Jamaica

A U.S.-flagged tugboat towing a section of dredge pipe from the Bahamas to Jamaica sank in moderate seas in the early morning hours of Jan. 25. The U.S. Coast Guard rescued four crewmembers from a life raft later that day, but a fifth crewman was not found.

The 99-foot tug Betty, registered in Tampa, Fla., was heading south at 0339 when an emergency radio alert was received from the vessel 56 miles off the coast of Jamaica, the Coast Guard reported. Seas were five to seven feet, with 13- to 15-knot winds.

“We received initial notification from the vessel with an EPIRB hit,†said Petty Officer 1st Class Jennifer Johnson, spokeswoman for the Coast Guard’s Seventh District in Miami. “They were towing a piece of pipeline, something happened with the tow and it dragged the tug down.â€

Betty’s owner and captain, Ed Hansen of Island Maritime Services in Sunrise, Fla., was one of four crewmen who survived. He said the 2,000-foot section of pipe broke without warning and capsized the tug.

“We had to crawl out of the wheelhouse window,†Hansen said. “All five made it out, but one man was lost between the boat and raft. The boat was lying on its side. We got the raft off and activated the EPIRB.â€

Hansen said the missing crewman, Bobby Sprott, 64, of Chesapeake, Va., was a mate with 25 years of maritime experience. He was wearing a life jacket when the tug sank, Hansen said.

An HU-25 Falcon jet from Coast Guard Air Station Cape Cod, assigned to earthquake relief operations in Haiti, was dispatched to Betty’s last known position and spotted the life raft at 0650. An MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter from Florida’s Coast Guard Air Station Clearwater, also assigned to quake relief and deployed to the Turks and Caicos Islands, arrived about three hours later and hoisted the four crewmembers to safety.

The men were flown to the U.S. Naval Hospital at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where they were treated for minor injuries.

“One had a broken finger and the others had bad bruises,†Johnson said.

Coast Guard Lt. Jonathan Lee, co-pilot of the helicopter, said there was no sign of Betty when the rescue crew reached the site.

“We did a search and saturated the area,†he said. “We didn’t see (the tugboat) at all. Visibility was good, waters were fairly calm — pretty good search conditions.â€

The search for Sprott was called off the following day, Johnson said. An HC-144A Ocean Sentry surveillance plane from the Coast Guard Aviation Training Center in Mobile, Ala., assisted in the operation.

Coast Guard officials would not comment further on what caused Betty to sink. The incident occurred in international waters and is not under investigation, Johnson said.

Rich Miller

By Professional Mariner Staff