The towboat Capt. Shorty C was approaching the Intracoastal Waterway when the vessel began sheering toward an oncoming vessel.
The captain tried to steer away from Jackie, the oncoming towboat, but his vessel wasn’t turning as expected. Capt. Shorty C also lost its starboard engine. Moments before the collision, Jackie’s captain told his counterpart on Capt. Shorty C that the situation “ain’t looking too good.”
He was right. Capt. Shorty C’s lead barge struck Jackie’s lead barge, then hit its stern barge, causing a fire to break out. No one was injured, but the incident caused more than $600,000 in damage to the barges.
The collision occurred at 0105 on July 20, 2015, in the narrow entrance to the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway near Port Bolivar, Texas. Local Vessel Traffic Service recommends eastbound towboats do not meet oncoming vessels in this spot.
National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators determined the probable cause of the accident stemmed from the tow operators’ “attempt to meet in a location known for strong currents and shoaling, which was contrary to published guidance for that waterway.”
The 2,400-hp Capt. Shorty C was eastbound with eight crew, pushing two 25,000-barrel barges loaded with cumene. The 2,000-hp Jackie was traveling west with five crew, pushing two 25,000-barrel barges filled with naphtha. The combined length of both tugboats with their tows was nearly 700 feet.
At about 0045 on the morning of the incident, the westbound towing vessel Ron Hull stopped near the entrance to the Intracoastal Waterway, which caused Jackie’s relief captain at the controls to stop. The relief captain never announced his stop over radio, omitting information that might have let Capt. Shorty C “adjust his speed accordingly,” the report said.
Five minutes later, Ron Hull and Jackie were again underway. Capt. Shorty C’s captain suggested a port-to-port passage with Jackie, whose relief captain confirmed the arrangement.
“But neither operator identified exactly where the vessels would pass each other within the Bolivar buoy line, which was in an area not recommended for meeting by the United States Coast Pilot 5,” the NTSB report said.
United States Coast Pilot 5 is one of nine books in a series published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The volume suggests that eastbound and westbound tows should not meet between Bolivar Peninsula Buoy 15 and Buoy 20.
While crossing the Houston Ship Channel, Capt. Shorty C’s pilot undertook a crabbing maneuver to offset the tidal forces. But he apparently lost control of his vessel. At about 0102, he radioed Jackie with a warning to “watch me” because he had “caught shallow” and was “sheering right toward” the oncoming tow and its barges.
He tried to straighten the vessel but his rudders were not responding, possibly due to shallow water, the report said. The captain also put his starboard engine astern to swing the vessel in that direction, but the engine quit. It resumed operation within about 20 seconds.
“The vessels continued on a collision course until the port bow of the Capt. Shorty C’s lead barge struck the port side of the Jackie’s lead barge before colliding with its stern barge,” the report said.
Jackie’s barges separated upon impact and a steel deck support broke through into one of the barges. Sparks caused by the accident ignited naphtha vapors escaping from the barge, investigators determined. Jackie’s crew disconnected from the flaming barge while the crew of Capt. Shorty C intentionally grounded the other EMS barge outside the buoys.
The accident caused $119,000 in damage to Capt. Shorty C’s lead barge, Kirby 29116. The barge that caught on fire, EMS 343, sustained $339,000 in damage and EMS 344 sustained about $150,000 in damage. Neither towboat was damaged.
Divers determined after the accident that Capt. Shorty C was missing about 60 percent of its starboard rudder, and both propellers had at least one bent fluke. This damage could have occurred during two “touch and go” groundings within two weeks of the collision.
“The pilot acknowledged that the Capt. Shorty C had been operating normally in open deep water, but in shallow water it was handling a little sluggishly,” the report said. However, these factors were not listed as a probable cause for the accident.
Kirby Inland Marine of Houston owns Capt. Shorty C and its barges, while Enterprise Marine Services of Houma, La., owns Jackie and its tow. Neither company responded to requests for comment on the accident.