Master in Ambrose Light accident faulted for failure to plot intended track line

A tanker collision that brought the permanent demise of New York's Ambrose Light was caused by poor bridge-resource management by the ship's master, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said.

Axel Spirit smashed into the 76-foot-tall light tower in good visibility at 0143 on Nov. 3, 2007. The 819-foot Bahamas-flagged tanker was inbound to Perth Amboy, N.J., when its starboard hull sideswiped the beacon's legs and stanchion (PM #111).

The U.S. Coast Guard eventually decided not to replace Ambrose Light. A demolition contractor removed the crippled tower in 2008.

In a recent report, NTSB investigators said the allision was probably caused by "the master's failure to use all available resources to determine the vessel's position and course in the transit past Ambrose Light and to adequately communicate his intentions and expectations to the bridge team, which therefore prevented the bridge team from appropriately supporting the master."

Axel Spirit was operated by Teekay Corp. of Vancouver, British Columbia. Its owner was Axel Spirit LLC.

Carrying 441,000 barrels of crude oil, Axel Spirit spent 10 hours at an anchorage 4 nautical miles northeast of the tower. When the tanker got underway again en route to the pilot embarkation area past Ambrose Light, the beacon was at 235°.

"The master stated to the second officer that the 230 degree course appeared to a be a good course to pass Ambrose Light, but he did not specify how far off the tower he wished to pass," the NTSB said. "The master did not order the second officer to plot an intended track line for the Axel Spirit's transit from the anchorage past Ambrose Light to the pilot boarding area, nor did the master plot any track line on the chart himself."

Sea swells were five to eight feet near Ambrose Light. Winds were 15 knots, gusting to 30 knots. Axel Spirit reported visibility of 12 nautical miles. The swells caused Axel Spirit to yaw 5° or 6° to starboard. The tanker was sailing at 4 to 5 knots. The east-to-west current was 1 knot.

According to voice recordings, the master ordered a course change to 225° to swing his vessel a little more toward port. As the ship approached Ambrose Light, the second officer and a lookout observed that it was too close to the tower, so the master changed course to 220°.

At 0142, one minute before the allision, the mate on the pilot boat New York radioed Axel Spirit's master to inquire about the placement of the pilot ladder and boarding speed. The conversation lasted 20 seconds.

Seconds later, the ship's starboard side struck Ambrose Light, producing noise and vibrations heard and felt on the bridge. The contact triggered multiple alarms and an expletive from the master. "We touched," he lamented, adding, "My God, this will be hell. I wonder if it's showing much."

The master didn't perform any damage assessment and never mentioned the accident to the pilot, who boarded later on the port side. The master didn't mention the accident to his company's representative at the Perth Amboy dock. After taking a look at the obvious steel-plate indentation on the starboard side, the master finally reported it to Teekay at 0813. The Coast Guard was finally notified at 0852, over seven hours after the ship struck the tower.

Axel Spirit's starboard ballast tanks Nos. 4 and 5 were damaged, a 60-foot-long area of shell plating was buckled and there were internal structural cracks and deformities and broken safety railing. Repairs cost $1.5 million.

The NTSB determined that the communication between the master and second officer was "limited and ineffective." The master ignored many of his company's risk-mitigation requirements, complaining that they are "huge," difficult and paperwork-intensive.

"Amending the passage plan as required by Teekay's safety management system, plotting a track line before making the transit from anchorage to the pilot boarding area, and then following that track line during the transit could have prevented the allision with Ambrose Light," the report said. "The master did not focus his attention on safely navigating around Ambrose Light and failed to compensate for the current's effect on the vessel's set and drift."

The beacon's three legs and central column were damaged, causing the tower to lean. Its light was stuck in one position. The estimated repair cost was $10 million, and the Coast Guard decided to remove the tower permanently.

Alana Duffy, a spokeswoman for Teekay, said the company agrees with the NTSB report.

"The incident was caused by the bridge team's failure to follow well-established procedures in which they were fully trained," Duffy said. "We are using the lessons learned from this incident to raise awareness amongst all our sea staff and to reinforce the importance of bridge-resource management and timely incident reporting."

Dom Yanchunas

By Professional Mariner Staff