Maritime Casualty News, August 2016

Safety alert: Avoid autopilot-induced casualties

The U.S. Coast Guard has issued a safety alert urging operators to take steps to avoid accidents while autopilot is in use.

In the Aug. 16 alert, the Coast Guard said wheelhouse crew should be familiar with the onboard autopilot systems — particularly how to quickly re-engage manual steering.

“Autopilot systems can reduce the monotony of steering by freeing up the helmsman to step away from the helm in order to perform other minor pilothouse tasks and gain different navigational viewpoints,” the safety alert said. “There are also disadvantages that have the potential to lead to negligent navigational practices.”

Indeed, the Coast Guard said there have been accidents where crew spotted a potential problem but were unable to re-engage manual steering quickly enough. One such incident occurred in 2015 when the 257-foot offshore supply vessel Connor Bordelon struck a drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico. National Transportation Safety Board investigators determined the mate at the controls was unfamiliar with an autopilot button that immediately restored manual steering.

“It should come as no surprise that when an inattentive operator meets with extreme circumstances, he or she usually has no time to take corrective actions,” the alert said. “Also, in some past incidents, when there was time to take corrective action, the operator’s lack of system knowledge hindered the need to rapidly change over from autopilot to manual steerage mode.”

When using autopilot in areas of high traffic, obstructions, poor visibility or other potentially dangerous situations, the vessel’s master should ensure the crew can immediately establish manual control of the vessel’s steering. The alert said a competent person should be ready at all times to take control.

The Coast Guard strongly recommends that vessel owners, operators and masters are familiar with autopilot regulations and crews are trained on the autopilot systems. Written procedures also should be posted explaining how to switch from autopilot to manual control, the alert said.

Finally, vessel owners and operators should review internal policies on autopilot use in high-traffic areas or periods of low visibility.

To read the entire alert, visit:

Freighter grounds twice in Columbia River

A 751-foot motor vessel grounded in the Columbia River near Skamokawa, Wash., during transit then again while at anchor after refloating with the tide.

The Hong Kong-flagged Rosco Palm was outbound when it grounded at about 1949 on Aug. 12 along a bend in the river and then refloated later than night with the rising tide, according to Coast Guard spokesman Levi Read.

The vessel then anchored upriver to avoid blocking other passing vessels when it grounded on the sandy bottom as the tide receded. The ship refloated at about 0745 on Aug. 13 with the rising tide, Read said.

The ship sailed to a Kalama, Wash., shipyard for an inspection. The Coast Guard cleared the ship to depart on Aug. 21 and it left later that day.

There were no injuries, pollution or damage to the ship as a result of the groundings. The cause remains under investigation.

Harbor cruise boat takes on water off Cape Ann

Coast Guard crews responded to a 37-foot harbor cruise vessel that was taking on water outside Gloucester Harbor off Cape Ann, Mass.

Crew aboard King Eider, operated by Cape Ann Harbor Tours, reported at 1634 on Aug. 20 that the vessel was taking on water. The flooding was occurring at a rate of nearly five gallons of water per minute, according to a Coast Guard news release. There were 34 people on board at the time.

The charter fishing vessel Lisa & Jake was the first vessel to arrive, while a 47-foot boat crew from Coast Guard Station Gloucester and two local harbormaster boats also responded, arriving about 25 minutes after the emergency call.

“Pumps were engaged on board King Eider and able to keep pace with the water flooding the vessel,” the news release said. “As a preventative measure, the Coast Guard crew also placed a high-capacity pump aboard.”

The harbor cruise passengers remained on board as Lisa & Jake towed the excursion boat back into Gloucester Harbor. It was safely back at its pier around 1800. There were no injuries among the passengers or crew.

The cause of the flooding is unknown and the subject of a Coast Guard investigation.

Casualty flashback: August 1901

Eleven years before Titanic struck an iceberg and sank in the North Atlantic, SS Islander met a similar fate in 1901 south of Juneau, Alaska.

The 240-foot luxury vessel sailing under a Canadian flag departed Skagway, Alaska, on Aug. 14, 1901, for Victoria, B.C., with 107 passengers and 61 crew. At about 0200 the next morning, the steamer struck an iceberg in the Lynn Canal near Juneau, damaging the hull and causing rapid flooding. The captain later ordered everyone to abandon ship, and the vessel sank within minutes after impact. Accounts vary, but between 40 and 60 passengers and crew died.

Many passengers on board were involved in Yukon gold prospecting, and varying accounts suggest there was up to $3 million in gold on the ship when it sank. That cargo would be worth about $80 million today.

There have been numerous attempts over the years to raise the ship, and more recently a lengthy court battle between two Seattle firms vying for rights to salvage ship sections believed to contain any gold on board.

Earlier this year, Alaska media reported gold salvaged from the ship about four years ago was for sale for $4 million.

A new gold rush has been under way around Nome, Alaska, in recent years as gold prices remain relatively high. As a result, the Coast Guard has begun requiring inspections for vessels used to search for the precious metal.

By Professional Mariner Staff