Gulf research vessel sank due to poor repair decisions, NTSB says

A day after leaving Tampa, Fla., where the oceanographic research vessel Seaprobe spent almost two weeks undergoing major repairs, the ship was again in trouble. 

The 170-foot ship encountered rough weather in the Gulf of Mexico and began taking on water during the evening of Jan. 17, 2013. Pumps initially kept the flooding in check, but large waves sent seawater rushing into the engine room.
Four hours later, the vessel was listing to starboard and bilge pumps were no longer keeping up. Soon afterward, as Seaprobe went down roughly 130 miles south-southeast of Mobile, Ala., the 12-person crew boarded life rafts and awaited Coast Guard rescue helicopters.

National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators focused on a decision by vessel operator Fugro-McClelland Geosciences to put off permanent repairs while Seaprobe was at a Florida shipyard. They noted that temporary repairs covering six freeing ports left the 39-year-old ship susceptible to downflooding.

“Contributing to the accident was the owner’s failure to comply with the vessel’s safety management system and mandatory load line regulations,” the NTSB report said. 

Seaprobe had finished an oceanographic research assignment near South America in December 2012 when it left for Morgan City, La. On the way, seawater from the deck was collecting in the engine room.

As the voyage continued, the captain tried to minimize water on the deck near the exhaust pipe for the starboard main engine where the flooding was occurring. The report said Seaprobe crew attached metal sheets over areas of severe corrosion near the starboard exhaust trunk. 

While en route to Louisiana, Seaprobe diverted to the Gulf Marine Repair shipyard in Tampa for repairs. It arrived there Jan. 4. 

“After the accident, the Coast Guard learned that shipyard personnel used doubler plates to temporarily repair the starboard main engine and generator exhaust pipes housed within the exhaust trunk,” the report said. 

“The Coast Guard also learned that portions of the exhaust trunk’s bottom plate were not renewed after this plate, some of its metal wasted, was removed to gain access to damaged sections of the exhaust pipes within the exhaust trunk.”

The port engineer representing Fugro-McClelland told federal investigators that the bottom plate was not replaced to allow for further review of the exhaust pipes during a later dry dock, the report said. Doubler plate was installed over six freeing ports at the engineer’s request in an effort to keep seawater from the vulnerable exhaust trunk.

Under terms of its load line agreement, Seaprobe’s operators should have notified the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS) before conducting this type of repair. 

“Blocking the drainage of water from the deck and operating at sea with openings to the engine room were changes to the conditions of the vessel requiring ABS to revisit the vessel and reassess the load line assignment,” the NTSB report said. 

Failure to notify the shipping bureau about those issues violated terms of the vessel’s safety management system, investigators said. 

Fugro-McClelland is based in Houston. Emails to several company officials seeking comment on the NTSB findings were not returned. 

Seaprobe left the Tampa shipyard on Jan. 16. A day later, while transiting the Gulf of Mexico, the ship encountered north wind gusts of 34 knots and seas reaching 15 feet. 

“The high seas and the fact that six of the Seaprobe’s freeing ports were closed caused seawater to collect on deck. This water made its way into the open bottom of the exhaust trunk and downflooded into the engine room,” the report said. 

The Coast Guard received Seaprobe’s distress call at about 0200. It sent a plane and two helicopters to Seaprobe’s location. All 12 people aboard the vessel were hoisted into the two helicopters by rescue bucket and taken to Mobile, where medical personnel were waiting. Two crewmembers had minor injuries and a third suffered a broken tailbone.

Seaprobe sank sometime around 0315 on Jan. 18 with about 44,000 gallons of diesel fuel on board. Depths in that part of the Gulf can reach 5,000 feet, and the vessel is considered a total loss. 

By Professional Mariner Staff