A tow struck a Louisiana bridge in 2013 probably because of the captain’s decision to transit in high winds, and because submerged debris caused a steering loss, investigators determined.
The 58-foot Bayou Lady, an uninspected towing vessel, was pushing six empty hopper barges on a windy Dec. 7, 2013, near Houma, La. The forward portside barge struck the Bayou Blue Bridge’s south side at about 0630.
The bridge required over $715,000 in repairs, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said in a December 2014 accident report. The vessel is owned and operated by Total Marine Logistics LLC in Belle Chasse, La.
The NTSB found that the accident’s probable cause was the captain’s transit of the bridge’s opening in the wind, combined with his brief loss of steering after submerged debris impacted the vessel’s rudder.
Located seven miles east of Houma, the 131-foot pontoon bridge spans the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway at mile marker 49.5. State Highway 316 traffic runs north to south on the bridge.
Bayou Lady was undamaged in the accident, the NTSB said. The lead barge sustained minor damage deemed unimportant since the barges were headed for a Morgan City, La., scrapyard. No injuries or pollution occurred.
The bridge was fully open at 0627 that morning, with the tug and barges lined up for transit in light rain and light fog. Winds from the north at 14 knots were perpendicular to the tow and pushing the flotilla of barges toward the south side of the waterway, the NTSB said.
Bayou Lady’s captain said he attempted to adjust course slightly to the right as he maneuvered the tow through the bridge opening at about 4.5 knots. However, the rudder wasn’t responding. He then used astern propulsion on the starboard engine to turn the head of the lead barges to starboard, hoping he would reduce impacts to the bridge’s south side.
After the allision occurred, the captain sent a deck hand below to inspect the steering gear pumps and associated equipment for problems that might have affected the rudder. When the deck hand said he saw no irregularities, the captain manipulated the engines ahead and astern several times to remove any lodged debris under the vessel. In subsequent government interviews, the captain and deck hand said that during this process they saw a 6-foot-by-6-inch log pop up astern. After they spotted the log, the vessel regained its steering.
A wooden fendering system protects the north and south sections of the bridge. The NTSB investigation found that the bridge’s wood pilings and much of the bumper structure on its vehicle ramps were damaged, apparently from previous strikes. The bridge was closed in September 2010 for repairs after being struck by a vessel.
In interviews by the U.S. Coast Guard, towing captains familiar with the waterway and the bridge said they wouldn’t have attempted passage in that morning’s 14-knot winds and with Bayou Lady’s barge configuration. The bridge tender gave a similar statement, saying conditions were probably too windy to be moving six empty hopper barges. Barges, when empty, have less draft and more sail area that can be affected by wind.
The six hopper barges were ahead of Bayou Lady that morning in a three-by-two configuration, with two side by side and three end to end, the NTSB said. Each barge was 195 feet long and 35 feet wide. With the 58-foot tow vessel, the overall tow configuration was 643 feet in length and 70 feet wide.
In January, owner and operator Total Marine Logistics had no comment on the accident. American Commercial Lines LLC (ACL) said it was erroneously mentioned in the NTSB’s report. “We are not the owner or operator of the Bayou Lady, nor were we at the time of the incident,” ACL’s senior vice president and general counsel Dawn Landry said in January. “ACL sold the boat in 2012.” The towing vessel was constructed by Houma Barge Shipbuilding in Louisiana in 1961.