Master in Va. barge grounding faulted for not seeking help sooner

The grounding of a 580-foot container barge off the coast of Virginia in late 2009 could have been prevented if the captain of the tugboat that was pulling it had notified authorities earlier that he was struggling to maintain course in heavy weather, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.

La Princesa was being towed from Puerto Rico to Pennsauken, N.J., on the night of Nov. 12, 2009, when the barge and its tug, the 128-foot Sentry, were caught in the remnants of Hurricane Ida. The vessels were about 40 miles from the entrance to Delaware Bay when they began to be pushed southwest in 25-foot seas and winds gusting to 74 mph.

The two towlines connecting the vessels parted at about 2135, with La Princesa drifting nearly 100 miles before grounding on a beach in Sandbridge, Va., early the next day. Strong winds and seas continued to move the barge slowly through the sand until personnel from Titan Salvage were able to board the vessel and flood two ballast tanks.

After the weather subsided, the water was pumped out. La Princesa, was pulled free on Nov. 18 by two tugboats aided by the rising tide.

In its investigation report, the Coast Guard cited “unpredictable heavy weather conditions†as the key factor in the incident. It also determined that Sentry’s captain erred by not reporting to the Coast Guard that the tug was struggling to maintain course before its towlines parted.

“Prompt communication from the captain to the USCG could have prevented the breakaway by La Princesa by sending other tugs to assist or by recommending to the captain of the Sentry to vector its course, so that it was not a direct battle with the winds and sea state,†the report said.

The Coast Guard said the tug had struggled for more than 24 hours in heavy weather before the bridle wire parted, followed a minute later by the pendant wire. The large deck structure of La Princesa “induced large wind resistance†that led to the separation, investigators said.

After the barge broke free, Sentry’s captain notified the Coast Guard via radio, the report said. He then followed La Princesa and monitored its position, “making security calls and reports to the Coast Guard every 15 minutes†until the barge grounded.

Mark Miller, a spokesman for Crowley Maritime Corp., the owner of the tug and barge, said the six-man crew of Sentry did not anticipate the speed at which the storm was moving and it caught them from behind. By the time the tug stopped making headway, it was too late to render assistance, he said.

“There is no requirement to notify the USCG if a vessel loses way and begins a hove-to maneuver,†Miller said. “Crowley contacted additional resources once there was a concern that the vessel may be in (danger); however weather conditions would not allow those resources to clear the harbor as wind and wave heights at both Philadelphia and Norfolk prevented other tugs from attending the vessel offshore.â€

The Coast Guard issued the captain a letter of warning, but no disciplinary action was taken by Crowley.

Rich Miller

By Professional Mariner Staff