Dredge barge under tow in high winds runs aground near Port Isabel jetties

One of the nation’s largest dredge barges was severely damaged when it ran aground in high winds at the Port Isabel, Texas, jetties.

The U.S. Coast Guard is investigating whether negligence played a role in the grounding of the 305-foot cutter suction barge Texas on Jan. 20 in the Brownsville-Santiago Pass. The captain of the oceangoing tugboat Miss Katie attempted to tow the barge through the Port Isabel jetties in 40 to 50 mph winds, with gusts to 60 mph, said Coast Guard investigator Lt. Yancee McLemore.

The 3,600-hp Miss Katie was using a towline to take Texas from Louisiana to the Brownsville area, where the dredge was under contract to do dredging work for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The barge ran aground at 1700 as the triple-screw tug was entering the jetties, between which there is a 300-foot-wide space.

Under orders from the Coast Guard, the cutter suction barge Texas is tied up at a Port Isabel dock awaiting a damage survey after the 305-foot vessel ran aground in January. Underwater rocks pierced the hull, a fuel tank and void spaces. (Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard/Lt. Yancee McLemore)

“The winds were extremely strong,” McLemore said. “When he turned into the jetties, he basically turned sideways into the wind, and the barge just kind of acted like a big sail or a big kite. The vessels were already committed to coming through the jetties. He couldn’t turn around, and the wind just pushed the vessel into some subsurface rocks and it became stuck.”

The barge’s draft is 8.5 feet aft and 9.5 feet forward. The channel is 46 feet deep. The rocks severely damaged Texas. Although its hull was pierced — including one fuel tank and void spaces — hardly any fuel spilled, McLemore said.

“The fuel tank was breached, but the water kept the fuel from coming out through the physics of displacement,” he said. The crew aboard Texas also helped to minimize the risk by transferring fuel to undamaged tanks.

Miss Katie is operated by Marquette Transportation Co. Offshore of Galliano, La. Marquette’s vice president and general manager, Tim Dietz, said the company would have no comment on the casualty.

The owner of Texas is Illinois-based Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co. The company didn’t respond to requests for details of the damage and repairs. McLemore said the barge was sent to dry dock, delaying the dredge project, which was time-sensitive.

While in transit in the Gulf of Mexico, Texas was unmanned as it was being towed by its stern. When the tow came within six miles of the jetties, a second tugboat delivered a crew of six to the barge.

That tug, the 2,500-hp Mr. Connor, accompanied the southbound tow on the approach to the jetties, but couldn’t maneuver into position to assist in time. The tow was turning to starboard, i.e. to the west, when it ran into trouble.

“That tugboat was standing by offshore because they knew that the weather was getting rough,” McLemore said. “The ideal situation would be for the second tug to get in place and push it off, but the space was narrowing pretty quick.”

Texas remained aground until the rough weather subsided three or four hours later, McLemore said. Mr. Connor and another tug, Pops, helped the barge refloat.

McLemore said Miss Katie was properly manned with a four-person crew. He said the Coast Guard is still investigating the exact causes of the incident. He said the Miss Katie crew was aware of the weather forecast and had the option of waiting offshore until the winds died down.

Dom Yanchunas

By Professional Mariner Staff