Maritime Casualty News, December 2019

Safety alert: Crushing risk from retractable pilothouses

The U.S. Coast Guard has issued new safety recommendations for companies operating towboats with retractable pilothouses, noting that these systems pose a crushing hazard when being lowered. 

The safety alert issued in early December by Sector Houston-Galveston was spurred by an unspecified casualty. A recent related incident involved crewman Freddy Stark, 27, who died on March 31 near Houston while working aboard a towboat with a jacking pilothouse. A wrongful death lawsuit filed soon after the incident suggests he was crushed as the vessel’s house returned to its lowered position. 

“Mr. Stark was performing his regular duties … when the captain of the vessel lost contact with Mr. Stark,” according to the lawsuit filed April 9 in Harris County (Texas) District Court. “The vessel in question was a pushboat that had a wheelhouse that could be elevated so as to allow the captain to see above loads that were being pushed.”

“After losing contact with Mr. Stark, a nearby vessel saw what it described as a silhouette fall beneath the raised wheelhouse,” the suit said. “After returning to dock, the crew of the vessel discovered Mr. Stark’s dead body.”

The alert contains seven recommendations for operators intended to reduce the risks associated with this type of vessel. The primary recommendations call for installation of a fail-safe system that will lock the pilothouse in place if the hydraulics fail, and having an alarm that sounds when the house is moving in either direction. 

Other recommendations call for the placement of markings and/or physical barriers around the “danger zone” where the house retracts, and training to keep crew away from these areas. Further, the Coast Guard suggests codifying these steps in each vessel’s towing safety management system.

Captain involved in grounding tests positive for alcohol​

A tugboat captain had his merchant mariner credential suspended for at least a year after the Coast Guard determined he was operating under the influence of alcohol when his vessel ran aground in Virginia’s Rappahannock River in mid-November.

The service said the captain, who was not identified, was helming the tug Niki Jo C. when it left the channel and grounded. Additional details about the incident were not available. 

The Coast Guard said the captain’s blood-alcohol level exceeded the federal limit of .04 percent for the operator of a commercial vessel, although it did not specify the mariner’s BAC. His credential has been suspended for a year, followed by a six-month probationary period under terms of a settlement with the Coast Guard. The credential could be revoked permanently if he fails to satisfy the terms of the agreement. 

Performer’s megayacht burns at Miami marina

A 120-foot megayacht reportedly owned by musician Marc Anthony caught fire and capsized while docked at a Miami marina. 

The fire aboard Andiamo was spotted at about 2000 on Dec. 18 while the vessel was moored at Island Gardens Marina, the Coast Guard said. Fireboats from several South Florida departments spent hours trying to extinguish the flames. 

The Coast Guard oversaw pollution response after the incident, and in doing so opened the Oil Liability Trust Fund to pay for up to $300,000 in pollution mitigation. The vessel had up to 10,566 gallons of diesel fuel on board when the fire started. Sorbents were used to remove spilled fuel from the harbor. 

Two crew escaped the vessel without injury, local news reported. The two-time Grammy-winning singer was not present at the time. The National Transportation Safety Board is among the agencies investigating the cause of the fire. 

Casualty flashback: December 1952

The former Liberty ship Quartette was steaming toward South Korea with a load of sorghum when it ran onto the Pearl and Hermes Atoll near Midway Atoll in high winds. 

The 422-foot ship ran aground at 10.5 knots, damaging the bow and two forward holds, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which surveyed the wreck more than a decade ago. The ship was stable initially, but the crew could not back the ship off the reef. 

The 36 mariners aboard escaped to the ship SS Frontenac Victory a day after the grounding, although the captain and two officers remained at the scene awaiting a salvage tug. Poor weather delayed the refloating, and the vessel was blown broadside to the reef on Jan. 3, 1953, making the salvage impossible, NOAA said. The ship later broke apart. 

The remote location of the grounding would pose myriad challenges today. However, the U.S. Navy dispatched a 170-foot patrol boat and a PBY Catalina flying boat from Midway Island roughly 100 miles away. Honolulu, the nearest large city, is more than 1,000 miles from the site of the incident. 

The specific cause of the grounding is not known, although faulty navigation likely played a role. Crew aboard Quartette thought they were nine or 10 miles from the reef when the ship grounded. A lookout saw a line of breakers shortly before the grounding and reported them to a deck officer, who appeared to ignore the warning. 

By Professional Mariner Staff