Crude oil tanker holed by barge after bouncing off moored ship

A tank barge penetrates the tanker Eagle Otome‘s No. 1 starboard tank. (Courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)

The U.S. Coast Guard is investigating why an 810-foot tanker in the port of Port Arthur, Texas, crossed into the path of oncoming traffic, struck a moored ship and then had its hull pierced by an underway barge. The accident caused 420,000 gallons of crude oil to spill into the waterway.

The Singapore-flagged tanker Eagle Otome was sailing inbound, or eastward, Jan. 23 when it made a sudden port turn into the path of an oncoming tow being pushed by the tugboat Dixie Vengeance, the Coast Guard said. Eagle Otome first bounced off the docked freighter Gull Arrow before colliding with the 1,400-hp Dixie Vengeance‘s lead barge.

The barge sliced into Eagle Otome‘s hull, causing the major spill in the Port Arthur Canal section of the Sabine-Neches Waterway, which is part of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway.

The Coast Guard initially issued a press release stating that there was a loss of power aboard Eagle Otome, but the statement was later rescinded without further elaboration. The cause was still under investigation in February, said Petty Officer Renee Aiello, a Coast Guard spokeswoman in Houston.

Eagle Otome, built in 1994, is owned and operated by AET Shipmanagement of Singapore. In a statement, AET said Eagle Otome first sheared to starboard. In attempting to correct the course, a pilot initiated an adjustment to port, but the ship overcompensated. The company didn’t know the cause of the problems.

The collision occurred in a waterway whose navigable channel is only 400 feet wide. (Courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)

“We have started an internal review and there is no evidence of any malfunction of the vessel or of any of the equipment on the vessel,” AET’s statement said.

Two Sabine Pilots Association pilots were aboard Eagle Otome, said the pilots’ association president, Capt. Charles A. Tweedel. He said his board of commissioners is investigating the incident, and declined further comment.

Dixie Vengeance‘s tank barges were Kirby 30406 and Kirby 28112. All three vessels are owned and operated by Kirby Inland Marine LP of Houston. The lead barge was damaged in the collision, said Kirby spokeswoman Amy Husted. The company declined to comment on any evasive action taken by the tug caption — or whether there was even time for preventive measures.

No major damage was reported for the 597-foot, Bahamas-flagged Gull Arrow, which was tied up at the port’s No. 2 berth.

Tweedel said the channel is 400 feet wide in that area. Eagle Otome is 138 feet wide, and the outbound tug’s two barges were arranged in a single string 54 feet wide. That’s a tight squeeze and requires a careful passing arrangement, but even two large vessels can navigate through there safely, Tweedel said.

“It’s an area — if something does go wrong — that does not lend itself to having a whole lot of space to correct or to regain control,” Tweedel said.

Vessel traffic data provided by PortVision, a Houston company that collects AIS data from vessels in major ports, show that Eagle Otome was sailing within the eastbound channel at 6 knots at 0933 when it strayed to port and struck Gull Arrow. The speed slowed to as little as 0.4 knots. The tanker was coming away from the moored freighter and checking up when the westbound barge’s starboard fore corner wedged into the starboard bow section of the ship’s hull.

The accident caused disruptions to the Port Arthur area’s petroleum refining industry. The waterway was closed for five days. At least 14 inbound tankers were stuck in the Gulf of Mexico, while 12 outbound tankers couldn’t leave. Local newspapers said the 420,000-gallon spill was the largest in Texas in 15 years.

After striking the moored ship Gull Arrow, the inbound tanker Eagle Otome collided with an outbound barge in the Port Arthur Canal portion of the Sabine Neches Waterway. The accident resulted in a 420,000-gallon spill of crude oil. (Virginia Howe illustration/Sources: PortVision, U.S. Coast Guard)

The waterway is part of a 10-mile stretch in which oceangoing vessels are merged and co-mingled with inland Intracoastal Waterway tows. The casualty site was a mile inland from the area where the channel narrows from 500 feet to 400 feet, Tweedel said. Still, the pilots are generally able to avoid problems, he said. No oil had spilled from a piloted ship there in three decades. The most recent collision had been in 1979.

Tweedel said the local navigation district since 2001 has been considering various ideas for widening and deepening the 40-foot-deep channel. Officials also are pondering ways to separate the tanker and towboat traffic.

“That’s been pointed out in the past as being a concern,” Tweedel said. “The bottom line is our channel was last improved in 1962.”

As of early February, Coast Guard investigative and public affairs staff wouldn’t release any additional details about the collision.

Dom Yanchunas

By Professional Mariner Staff