Four crew rescued after 1,000-hp tugboat sinks during Atlantic storm

A tugboat pulling a 110-foot barge sank off Rhode Island during a fall nor’easter, and a fishing boat operating nearby rescued its four sailors.
The 1,000-hp tugboat Karen Jean was hauling the empty deck barge from Charleston, S.C., to Boston when it encountered rough seas and strong winds in the late afternoon on Oct. 22. The tug was headed toward shelter when it started taking on water at about 1800. 

“The boat developed a list and 15 minutes later it sank,” said Phil Capolupo, president of SPS New England, a highway contractor that bought the tug shortly before the accident. “Nobody got down to the engine room and they didn’t get a high-water alarm.”

The tug sank about two miles off Scarborough State Beach in Narragansett, R.I., according to a Coast Guard spokesman. Before it went down, the vessel’s crew radioed for help and deployed the tug’s lifeboat. 

Not far away, the 60-foot fishing vessel Merit was trying to escape the storm, which produced 40-knot winds and 8-foot seas. Capt. Sidney Smith and crewmembers Gary Detrick and Ernie Nicholson heard Karen Jean’s distress calls and went to help. 

“I didn’t know if I could do anything, but something just said ‘go,’” Smith recalled in a phone interview. “If I was in the water, I would hope someone would come for me.”

Smith, 60, of Greenport, N.Y., said they were still at sea only because a chain on his net reel had broken and the repair took longer than expected. He’s not sure how close he was to Karen Jean when he heard the radio call — in rough seas, it took about 40 minutes to reach the sinking tug. 

“That’s not the type of thing where you’re looking at your watch,” he said. 

It was nearly dark when he approached Karen Jean’s location. Smith saw the barge still connected by a 775-foot towline but not the tugboat, which had sunk below the surface. He aimed a spotlight and saw three sailors inside the life raft and a fourth clinging to its side. All four were wearing life jackets. 

He maneuvered his boat toward the raft and pulled up alongside it. After snagging the craft with a hook, the three sailors inside the life raft climbed onto the fishing vessel. 

Smith turned the boat around and another crewmember threw a rope toward the man still in the water. The sailor pulled himself closer and Smith grabbed his shirt and helped him get a foothold on the ladder. 

Once everyone was on board, Merit went to nearby Point Judith where medical personnel assessed the four sailors. They were cold, wet and shaken up but not hurt, Capolupo said. 

“The way these guys tell the story, they were really lucky” that Smith came when he did, Capolupo said. “It was getting dark, they were cold and in rough seas, and they were in the water.”

SPS New England bought Karen Jean shortly before the accident. It had not been in use for more than a year and it required substantial repairs and upgrades at a Tarpon Springs, Fla., shipyard before departing for Massachusetts. 

The Coast Guard is still investigating the accident and the cause has not been determined, a spokesman said. 

“They don’t know nor do I know what happened,” Capolupo said. His insurance company declared the vessel a total loss. 

Karen Jean sank in about 88 feet of water. Another vessel retrieved the barge soon after the accident, but the tugboat had not been salvaged as of December, and it’s not clear if it ever will be.    

By Professional Mariner Staff