Ferry grounding attributed to practice of cutting inside channel marker

When the salvage team was unable to lift the ferry off the reef, the salvors cut the ferry into two pieces. (Sea Tow Virgin Islands/Alan Wentworth)

A Caribbean passenger ferry was destroyed because it grounded on a reef after the captain cut inside a buoy to shave perhaps a few hundred yards off his voyage, the U.S. Coast Guard said.

The 96-foot American Pride ran hard aground March 17 at about 0900 just as it was departing a harbor at St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. While no one was injured in the incident, 15 passengers and three crew had to be rescued from the vessel.

The grounding happened on Triangle Reef, just beyond where ships exit Charlotte Amalie Harbor and enter open water. The ferry was on a regularly scheduled voyage from St. Thomas to the island of Tortola in the nearby British Virgin Islands.

About 350 gallons of diesel fuel spilled when American Pride’s portside fuel tank ruptured, requiring an ecological response from the Coast Guard and U.S. Virgin Islands environmental authorities.

Several efforts to dislodge the ferry from the reef were unsuccessful. Almost three weeks later, on April 6, salvors used simple hand tools to cut the aluminum boat in half. The $800,000 vessel had to be scrapped.

The accident happened at a spot where ferry crews habitually ignore a buoy that guides them into open water, said Lt. Cmdr. Ryan Manning of the Coast Guard Marine Safety Detachment at St. Thomas.

The outbound boats travel south-by-southeast in East Gregerie Channel. Upon sighting Buoy Red No. 2, which is 1,000 yards from land, mariners are supposed to pass the buoy on their port side and then make a turn to port. Triangle Reef, which is marked on nautical charts and is well known, is 400 yards from the buoy.

The captain of American Pride cut inside the buoy instead of navigating past it before turning to port, Manning said.

“They ran into the reef, in our opinion, because they were taking a course that was not using good seamanship,†Manning said. “The captain of the vessel wasn’t using good judgment.â€

The U.S.-flagged vessel was owned and operated by Caribbean Maritime Excursions Inc., doing business as Road Town Fast Ferry. Employees in the company’s offices at St. Thomas and at Tortola declined to comment.

A 50-ton crane then lifted the two sections onto a barge, which carried the ferry to St. Thomas. (Sea Tow Virgin Islands/Alan Wentworth)

In his statement to Coast Guard investigators, the American Pride captain said a problem in one of the ferry’s three diesel engines caused the vessel to veer into the reef. Even if there had been an engine failure, the primary cause of the accident was “operating outside the channel,†Manning said. The investigation was still open in late May.

The Coast Guard reported no problems with the vessel’s navigation equipment, and there were no adverse weather or visibility conditions. American Pride’s draft is only about 4 feet, Manning said.

Road Town Fast Ferry hired Titan Marine Salvage to free the boat from the reef. The tugboat Orleans from Puerto Rico was called in. Sea Tow Virgin Islands’ 50-ton crawler crane was floated to the scene on a barge.

The crews made several attempts to dislodge the ferry, which was stuck fast atop the rocky reef. “We tried to lift it, but it was too heavy and the straps were breaking,†said Capt. Alan Wentworth of Sea Tow.

Rough seas caused the effort to be suspended March 28. Work resumed April 5, when Sea Tow salvors and Commercial Dive Services, based at Tortola, cut the vessel into two pieces.

“It was easy. It was aluminum,†Wentworth said. “You’re not going to believe what tools I used — a 7 1/4-inch circular saw, just one blade, above the water, and a $1.49 Sawzall air-powered reciprocating saw blade underneath. A diver made a cut with a hand hacksaw, while (the boat) was lifted by the crane and a half-inch cable, to make the final sever of the bottom that was still up against the reef.â€

The crane lifted the bow and stern sections off the reef and onto a barge for transport to Crown Bay, St. Thomas. The load was transferred to another barge and taken to Tortola.

After investigators inspected the wreckage, the owner removed the engines and scrapped the remainder of the vessel, Manning said. The 96-gross-ton boat was built in 1979.

Over the years, the Coast Guard occasionally has warned the ferry captains not to cut inside the buoy, Manning said. He hopes the American Pride incident is a lesson for all of the operators.

At least 400 feet of containment boom was placed between the leaking vessel and the shoreline to reduce damage from the fuel spill. The Coast Guard said the unrecoverable fuel sheen caused minimal environmental harm.

A survey by the Virgin Islands’ Division of Fish and Wildlife found that 22 square feet of coral were destroyed in an “obliteration zone†totaling about 1,275 square feet of the bedrock reef. The loss affected 10 colonies of elkhorn coral, which the federal government lists as a threatened species.

The report recommends that Virgin Islands authorities assess penalties, which could be used to fund mitigation work and aids to navigation. It cited a Virgin Islands precedent in which fees were collected as a result of coral damaged by a cruise ship anchor in 2001.

By Professional Mariner Staff