Financial problems at Bouchard strand crews along two coasts

Facing serious financial challenges, Bouchard Transportation Co. has been unable to pay berthing fees or salaries for some employees during an extended period over the winter.

As of press time in late February, two Bouchard articulated tug-barge (ATB) units remained anchored off Sabine Pass, Texas, where they have been since mid-December. Six Bouchard ATBs shifted between anchorages in New York Harbor for nearly a month, and the Coast Guard in mid-February required three to find berthing immediately due to dwindling crew and dangerously low fuel levels.

Captains of the port for New York-New Jersey and Port Arthur, Texas, separately issued orders reiterating minimum manning requirements for the Bouchard vessels. In New York, the order also mandated that the ATBs maintain no less than 10 percent fuel capacity, said Coast Guard Cmdr. Jacob Hobson, chief of inspections for Sector New York.

“The whole idea is, if we have a tug and barge unit there, the tug needs to be able to respond to any emergency,” Hobson said in a Feb. 15 phone interview, listing bad weather, a dragging anchor or a man overboard as possible scenarios. “Below 10 percent fuel levels, some of those tugboats can only run for six to eight hours before running out.”

Bouchard Transportation, based in Melville, N.Y., operates a fleet of 25 tugboats and 26 barges. The company issued a statement acknowledging financial difficulties.

“The past two years, Bouchard has confronted tests the likes of which it has not faced in 100 years of history,” said Morton S. Bouchard, president and CEO. “(The) New York-New Jersey captain of the port order … is a further financial hurdle. Financial struggles are trial enough, but they are worse when they affect or worry our employees.”

The statement goes on to say that the company is working with creditors, customers and authorities to “put (its) house aright.”

“We have a financial plan and a clear understanding of and commitment to all those who work with, support or rely upon us,” Bouchard said.

The Bouchard ATB tugs Danielle M. Bouchard and Kim M. Bouchard anchored off Sabine Pass on Dec. 10 and Dec. 14, respectively. Since then, the Coast Guard has conducted daily welfare and safety checks among crew on board the vessels, Coast Guard Lt. John Edwards said.

“Bouchard Transportation Co. has suspended all operational and maintenance funding, including any berthing fees, which leaves the vessels (off Texas) nowhere to go but anchorage,” Edwards told Professional Mariner.

The order issued by Port Arthur Captain of the Port Jackie Twomey reiterates the vessels cannot get underway without “a minimum (of) one master, one mate, one able seaman and one ordinary seaman.” It’s not clear if manning has fallen below those levels. In New York and Texas, several crewmembers have hired vessels to bring them back to shore. In at least one case in New York, a deck hand dispatched to pick up supplies never returned.

“They are losing crew from time to time because these crews have not been paid for some time,” Hobson said, adding that New York Coast Guard personnel are making sure the vessels are adequately stocked and the crews are safe.

“This is not an action we wanted to take, however, we have a responsibility to keep our waterways safe, and Bouchard’s inability to maintain safe operational conditions aboard these tugs and fuel barges has forced me to take this step,” said Capt. Jason Tama, captain of the port in New York.

The three ATB tugs still awaiting berthing in New York at press time were Rhea I. Bouchard, Jane A. Bouchard and J. George Betz. None of the ATB barges anchored off either coast carried any product. According to the Coast Guard, some or all of the ATBs will require new safety inspections before they can re-enter service.

By Professional Mariner Staff