Fatal sinking of tugboat results in call for re-examination of stability policies

U.S. Coast Guard investigators are recommending misconduct and negligence charges against three officers of the tugboat Valour, which sank off North Carolina in 2006, killing three crewmen.

As a result of the accident, the Coast Guard is urging the entire towing industry to pay more attention to stability characteristics and policies for ballast operations.

The 6,000-hp tugboat was towing a fuel barge from Delaware to Texas on Jan. 17, 2006, when the vessels encountered severe weather, including winds as high as 70 knots and 20-foot seas.

With the master unaware of his officers’ ballast operations, Valour listed to port, rolled and sank stern-first, about 40 miles off Wilmington, N.C. The Coast Guard said two fateful events caused the disaster: Cross-connect valves were improperly left open between fuel tanks, and ballast adjustments were initiated before anyone had investigated the cause of the list.

“There was nothing wrong with this vessel. It was a perfectly fine towing vessel,†said Lt. Cmdr. Charles Barbee, the Coast Guard’s investigator in charge. “This was all human error, with the assistance of the environment. … This is something that can happen to any vessel out there.â€

The crewmen killed were an able tankerman, Ron Emory, 56; Chief Mate Fred Brenner, 53; and Chief Engineer Richard Smoot, 50. Valour was operated by Maritrans Operating Co. of Tampa, Fla. The company has since been acquired by New York-based Overseas Shipholding Group (OSG).

Capt. Patrick Modic, who teaches stability at Massachusetts Maritime Academy, said better company policies and equipment could have spared the mariners’ lives.

“Had they had a ballast management system that was codified by the company, had they had fuel operation procedures that said ‘thou shalt not have the cross-connect valves open unless it is in use,’ had they had tank-level indicators, this casualty wouldn’t have occurred,†said Modic, a professor in the school’s Department of Marine Transportation.

On the night of Jan. 17, the 193-gross-ton tug began listing slightly to starboard, which the vessel was inclined to do. The captain reacted by ordering the pumping of ballast into the No. 18 port ballast tank for 15 minutes. That didn’t correct the list. The chief engineer continued pumping for 61 minutes, without telling the captain, according to the recently released Coast Guard investigative report.

Soon, the 135-foot Valour was listing 15° to port. The captain sounded the general alarm and ordered everyone to grab life vests and survival suits. He also sent out a mayday call to the Coast Guard. While checking a watertight door, the chief mate fell down a ladder, apparently broke both of his legs and went into cardiac arrest. Valour’s list to port worsened to 25°.

As the crew prepared for a possible helicopter evacuation of the ailing chief mate, an able tankerman fell overboard from a ladder leading to the stack deck. The captain maneuvered the tug to the east to assist him, bringing the seas and wind to the starboard beam. Valour’s list worsened to as much as 30°. Fuel escaped into the ocean, and seawater entered aft ballast tanks as vents submerged on the portside near the stern.

Confronted by multiple emergencies, the captain radioed the Coast Guard: “Got my hands full right now trying to keep the boat floating. … I’ve lost my gyro.â€

The officers discharged ballast from the No. 18 port tank and attempted to pump ballast into the No. 18 starboard tank. The vessel was sinking by the stern, and the decision reduced buoyancy, the investigators wrote. The engine room took on water through its portside vents.

With Valour listing 35°, the captain ordered his crew to release the tow after the 460-foot barge overtook the tug. Their attempts to locate and retrieve their tankerman were failing, although a Coast Guard helicopter eventually rescued him.

The captain ordered the crew to muster on the bow, with survival suits. The chief engineer weighed an estimated 379 to 385 pounds, and there was no survival suit big enough to fit him.

A good Samaritan tug, Justine Foss, arrived to help and stood by less than 50 yards away, waiting for the Valour crew to enter the water. The crew remained assembled on the bow for 23 minutes, but the captain never ordered them to abandon ship, the Coast Guard report said.

Valour became “severely trimmed by the stern†and then the “bow shot straight up into the air,†the investigators wrote. Four of the crew — including Emory and Smoot — fell into the water. Three others, including the captain, were washed from the bow. Six of those seven were pulled from the water by Justine Foss within 20 minutes.

Emory was lost at sea. The hypothermic Smoot went into shock and cardiac arrest and died aboard Justine Foss, witnesses reported. The chief mate went down with the tug.

“The whole thing seems like a bad dream. It happened so fast,†said the surviving able tankerman, Earl Shepard.

The Coast Guard determined that factors including weather, communications, ballast and cross-connected fuel tanks caused the casualty. Additionally, the captain was “in a constant state of being overwhelmed†by the multiple emergencies and attrition of his officers. The captain had 25 years of experience, including two years with Valour. The remaining eight crew had between 10 and 38 years of experience.

The investigators said the Valour crew was careless in leaving open the fuel tanks’ cross-current valves, which should remain closed when no active fuel transfers are in progress.

“As a result of the ballast operations, those cross-current valves that were not closed caused fuel to shift between the tanks,†Barbee said. “Once you get underway, they’re supposed to be closed, if you’re following the stability letter.â€

The assistant engineer, Lou Gatto, testified that “leaving the cross-connect valves (open) on the pair of fuel tanks that are feeding the day tank is a standard practice within the company, and possibly within the entire industry.â€

The assistant engineer “was aware of the specific stability letter requirements and knew that he and (the chief engineer) were violating them. This also contributed to (the captain’s) loss of situational awareness with regard to the Valour’s overall stability condition,†the investigators wrote. “Both (the chief engineer and the second engineer) violated the stability letter, an established rule, which constitutes an act of misconduct on each of their parts.â€

The captain committed misconduct in failing to enforce Valour’s stability letter, the report concluded. He was negligent in allowing his mates and engineers to conduct ballast operations to correct minor lists. The overfilling of the No. 18 port ballast tank — plus the unanticipated hydrostatic balancing of the Nos. 4 and 5 fuel tanks — resulted in the casualty.

“Had they not touched the ballast pump and not conducted any ballast operations whatsoever, then I do not believe this incident would have occurred,†Barbee said.

“Having the ballast tanks slack, instead of having them 100 percent full or 100 percent empty, is not a good practice,†Modic added.

The captain committed negligence when he failed to release the tow immediately after the report of a man overboard, the investigators said. The captain reported that he wanted to avoid an environmental catastrophe. The barge, M-192, was carrying 135,000 barrels of No. 6 fuel oil.

The Coast Guard issued nine recommendations to improve Maritrans crews’ understanding of safe procedures. The company had no policy for ballast operations on its towing vessels. The captain allowed mates and engineers to conduct ballast operations without his knowledge. Valour had a slight natural list, which the crew routinely corrected with liquid ballast. The company instead should have installed permanent ballast, the Coast Guard said.

In a statement, OSG said it has sent instructions to all of its towing vessels to review stability letters and ensure that fuel-tank valves are closed when underway. The company has trained more than 150 officers in stability management.

“We will review our existing procedures to enhance any language regarding ballast operations to more clearly define areas of responsibility and expected levels of communication with regard to ballast management,†OSG said. “Additionally, we plan on reinforcing the fact that every effort should be made to determine the cause of any list before taking corrective action.â€

The Coast Guard recommended that similar tugs be equipped with remote tank level indicators. Without such equipment, the officers on Valour had no practical way of confirming how much liquid was in their tanks.

Barbee said towing vessel operators also need to:

• Improve training to ensure that each crew understands the vessel’s stability characteristics for safe operation.

• Identify parameters for safe operation in heavy weather. Companies should consider adopting policies that prohibit operation under certain weather conditions.

• Practice man overboard drills on a tug when a barge is being towed.

Dom Yanchunas

By Professional Mariner Staff