Miscommunication may have contributed to tanker collision on the Mississippi

The Coast Guard is examining the possibility that a mix-up in radio communication between pilots contributed to a collision between two tankers at a sharp bend in the Mississippi River.

The May 19 incident involved the tankers Stolt Zulu and Bow Fortune. The ships, approaching bow-to-bow, sideswiped each other at a sharp bend called 81-Mile Point, near Donaldsonville, La.

Stolt Zulu, a 520-foot chemical tanker, was headed downriver after taking on a load at the nearby Shell Geismar petrochemical docks. The 587-foot Bow Fortune was moving upriver with the intention of calling at the same facility.

The two vessels found themselves too close to each other at a particularly unfortunate spot, said Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Melissa J. Harper, the investigating officer.

“The 81-Mile Point is historically well known among mariners on the Mississippi River as one of the most dangerous parts of the river,â€� Harper said. “It’s a hairpin turn — a very, very, very sharp point of the river. It is a common area for collisions, near misses and groundings.â€�

The tankers collided along their port sides. Bow Fortune sustained a 28-foot-long, pennant-shaped hole to the steel plating at the stern just above the level of the main deck.

Stolt Zulu received less severe damage — dents and bent railings.

No one was injured, and nothing spilled from either vessel.

Pilots from the New Orleans-Baton Rouge Steamship Pilots Association were aboard each ship. Harper said the pilots had been in radio communication and thought they had agreed on a passing point and strategy. Still, at least one of the pilots was surprised to encounter the other vessel at the dangerous bend.

During Coast Guard hearings in June, the pilot who had been guiding Bow Fortune said Stolt Zulu didn’t give his ship enough room to pass. When he approached the sharp bend, he said he was surprised to see Stolt Zulu in the middle of the channel.

The pilot aboard Stolt Zulu testified that it was Bow Fortune that turned away too late.

The owners of each ship said they knew of no mechanical problems or actions of their own crews that contributed to the accident. The bend is at Mile 178 between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

The Norwegian-flagged Bow Fortune is owned by Odfjell ASA. The company’s risk management and regulatory compliance coordinator, John Salvesen, said there seemed to have been a “communication problemâ€� between the pilots.

“It seems to be a question of a dispute in the agreement of passing between the two pilots,â€� Salvesen said from the Odfjell USA offices in Seabrook, Texas. “They were surprised to find each other at the location they did. Each pilot said the other was out of position.â€�

Bow Fortune had been scheduled to take on a load of monoethylene glycol at the Shell facility and then sail to Brazil. After the collision, Bow Fortune instead went to the Port of Houston Authority docks for repairs, said Salvesen.

Stolt Zulu, registered in Singapore, was carrying solvents, alcohols and lubricants. The ship was deemed seaworthy and continued a scheduled voyage to the Far East, said Dan Carr, assistant general counsel for Stolt Nielsen in Norwalk, Conn.

Though Bow Fortune is the larger ship, it received the worse damage. Harper said Stolt Zulu lay lower in the water because it was more heavily loaded.

Most collisions at 81-Mile Point happen during periods of high water, Harper said. However, Stolt Zulu and Bow Fortune collided on a calm morning with normal water levels, clear skies and a benign current of 2 to 3 knots.

Harper said it can be difficult for crews to spot oncoming vessels at the bend because the land and the trees block radar. Radio contact between pilots is essential.

“It’s very, very vital that there are clear communications between meeting parties … a very clear understanding of the meeting arrangement so they know what to expect from the other vessel,â€� Harper said.

“Be keenly aware of the vessel traffic, and make sure you understand who is coming around that bend to make sure you can get around the bend properly,â€� she said.

Harper said her investigation likely will be finished later this year.

The incident was “a significant accident that could have been avoided,â€� said Capt. Frank Paskewich, the Coast Guard commander at New Orleans.

“We were very glad that there was no associated injuries, pollution or significant impact to the waterway and flow of maritime traffic, but the incident could have turned out far worse than it did,â€� Paskewich said. “My investigators are committed to looking into all factors to see what could be done to try to prevent a similar incident from occurring in the future.â€�

By Professional Mariner Staff