Mate on yacht misread lights on bulker, turned into ship’s path, Coast Guard says

The sailboat and ship were on  reciprocal courses, apparently headed for a starboard-to-starboard meeting. As the vessels converged, the sailboat’s mate radioed the ship to say that the ship’s port running light appeared to be out. A little bit more than a minute later, after the sailboat turned to starboard, the two vessels collided. (Ginny Howe illustration)

The U.S. Coast Guard has concluded that the actions of the mate aboard the 92-foot sailboat Essence were the primary cause of a fatal collision with the 623-foot bulk carrier Barkald on Long Island Sound on Sept. 20, 2006.

As the two vessels were converging on nearly reciprocal courses on a clear night, the mate aboard the yacht misinterpreted the running lights of the ship and made a sharp turn to starboard that put the boat directly in the path of the ship, the Coast Guard has concluded.

Gina Bortolotti, the yacht’s cook and only licensed crewmember, was killed in the accident.

“The primary cause of the collision was the failure of the mate of the Essence to properly identify the aspect of the lights of the Barkald and take proper action as required by the Inland Navigation Rules,” according to the Coast Guard investigator Lt. Cmdr. Dawn Kallen.

The investigators also cited a failure on the part of both vessels to adequately determine that a risk of collision existed. Inadequate communications between the vessels as they approached each other in a meeting situation was also a contributing cause of the collision, according to the Coast Guard.

The accident occurred on a clear night on calm seas in the eastern part of the sound about 12 miles southeast of New Haven, Conn. Essence and its crew of three had left Newport, R.I. and were bound for Greenwich, Conn., when they collided with the bulk carrier heading in the opposite direction. A New York state pilot and five crewmembers were on the bridge of Barkald at the time of the collision.

According to Kallen, both vessels were equipped with radar but it is not clear whether either made radar contact. Only Barkald was equipped with AIS.

The mate aboard Essence said he saw the bulk carrier when it was some 10 miles away. However, he did not attempt to make radio contact with the ship until the collision was imminent, Kallen said.

The courses were nearly reciprocal, as the vessels met starboard to starboard. The mate of Essence told investigators that he was unable to see Barkhald’s port running light and made a hard turn to starboard just before the collision.

As the vessels converged, Essence initiated radio contact by calling Barkald to tell it that its port running light was out. Barkald replied by asking the sailing vessel if it planed to stay clear. Essence replied that it would stay clear. Moments later the collision occurred. The radio call began one minute and 17 seconds before the collision.

All three crewmembers from Essence were thrown in the water and retrieved. The sailing vessel sank and has not been recovered. The mate of Essence (who was on watch at the time) and the captain survived. All three were taken to Yale New Haven Hospital, where the men were treated for hypothermia and released; Bortolotti was pronounced dead.

Capt. Daniel Ronan, commander of Coast Guard Sector Long Island Sound and captain of the port said, “As tragic as this accident was, it does reinforce the need for all of us to remain ever attentive to the rules of navigation and ever vigilant to the inherent dangers of the sea to ensure safety for ourselves and other mariners.”

By Professional Mariner Staff