NTSB cites both Coast Guard cutter and ferry in collision off Block Island

While senior officers were getting chow, a chief boatswain's mate aboard a U.S. Coast Guard cutter suddenly encountered thickening fog. Just as the chief started to summon his superiors back to the bridge, the commanding officer appeared.

"Captain, I was just trying to reach you," the chief said. "My visibility has closed down to within 200, 300 yards."


{C} The ferry Block Island needed repairs to this 44-inch-long dent and a crack on its bow 5 feet above the waterline. (Photo courtesy National Transportation Safety Board)

At that moment, the radio sounded an ominous broadcast. A ferry was trying to get the cutter crew's attention.

"I did not catch the location (the ferry) was at, because the chief was talking at the same time as the sécurité broadcast," the commanding officer told investigators later. "Within seconds of the sécurité broadcast ending, we heard one prolonged blast off the starboard beam."

The chief looked out the cutter's starboard bridge windows. He saw the ferry appear on an L-shaped collision course with the Coast Guard vessel.

The commanding officer testified later, "I called out to 'Back full. Sound three short blasts,' which is the signal for operating stern propulsion…I told the quartermaster of the watch to sound the collision alarm, and we braced for impact."


{C} The Coast Guard cutter Morro Bay sustained a dent on its starboard side, just aft of amidships in the 2008 collision off Rhode Island. (Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)

Aboard the ferry, the captain had been busy monitoring small-vessel traffic congestion in the vicinity.

"So I was hopping my radars," the ferry captain reported later. "I had one set at six miles. … The other one I had set at a mile-and-a-half to three-quarters of a mile, and because of the small traffic, it basically stayed down at three-quarters of a mile, and that's how the (cutter) snuck in on me.

"I didn't realize she was coming in until it hit the three-quarter scale, and at that time, I reduced my speed, stopped my engines, proceeded with fog signals. I reversed my engines, backed out full, put my rudder hard over."

Crews aboard the cutter Morro Bay and ferry Block Island neither heard fog signals nor saw the other vessel on radar until it was too late, according to a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report. They collided at 1215 on July 2, 2008, about four miles south of Point Judith, R.I. The impact dented both vessels, but they remained seaworthy. Two ferry passengers were slightly injured.

The 187-foot car ferry was southbound from Point Judith, on its way to Block Island with 294 passengers. The 140-foot cutter was headed west-southwest after departing Newport, R.I., en route to New London, Conn. The impact was on the ferry's bow and the cutter's starboard side.

The NTSB concluded that both crews made errors during the low-visibility voyage.

"The probable cause of the collision … was the failure of the bridge watch officers on both vessels to monitor their radars, sufficiently address traffic and compensate for limited visibility," the NTSB wrote.

"Contributing to the accident was the failure of the bridge watch officers on both vessels to maintain a proper lookout and to sound appropriate fog signals."

Situational awareness was unexpectedly a challenge in the moments leading up to the encounter. Fog became extremely dense at the same time that pleasure boats appeared from all directions.

"The visibility got very poor that day very quickly, and traffic was very, very dense," said Christian Myers, chief of vessel operations for Interstate Navigation Co., which runs the ferry Block Island.

Before the two vessels entered the area of increased vessel traffic — just before the collision — the ferry was sailing at 15 knots, while the cutter was doing 11 knots. The NTSB report said both vessels should have posted extra lookouts.

The NTSB said Morro Bay sounded fog warnings using a loud-hailer that was less than 130 decibels and therefore "did not meet auditory standards of international navigation rules."

The investigators faulted the Block Island crew for not sounding fog signals at least every two minutes. Myers said the vessel is equipped with an automatic whistle, which captains are instructed to engage. The Block Island captain said he sounded a manual whistle only.

"We have an automatic, but I wasn't using it," the ferry captain told the investigators. "The reason I don't use it is because every time it goes off, there's usually someone on the radio trying to hear. I find it restricts my radio communications … so I do it by hand."

Morro Bay's radar was set to 1.5 miles and was functioning properly. Yet no one noticed the ferry coming into range. The NTSB said the cutter's bridge team may have been distracted by the vessel traffic, instructions on the bridge, personnel coming and going and the chief's phone call attempting to reach the commanding officer when the fog thickened.

In a statement to Professional Mariner, the Coast Guard said the most important lesson learned from the casualty is "the need for all mariners to be patient and slow down according to the conditions and remain vigilant."

The Coast Guard promised to use the approved fog signals and to post lookouts in such conditions in the future.

"A deviation from expected watch-standing policies contributed to this collision," the Coast Guard said. "We have reiterated the need to use the proper sound signaling device (ship's whistle, not loud-hailer) and (the) requirement for additional personnel on the bridge when operating in or near an area of reduced visibility."

Block Island had two 10-centimeter radars. When investigators asked if the captain and his mate in the wheelhouse were too focused on the small-vessel traffic on one radar, the ferry captain said he was also watching a nearby tanker.

"I don't really know how the Morro Bay slipped by me. Like I said, just because I was on a smaller (radar) scale, and I didn't have it up on the higher one. I did have the six-mile on, but I was looking at that tanker over there," the ferry captain said.

"Long-range observation — I believe that's what got me," he said. "If I would have called a sécurité call, as far as being, you know, having it up on a longer range, I believe I would have stopped in time."

The NTSB recommended that Interstate Navigation implement a safety management system. The report repeated a previous recommendation urging the Coast Guard to require safety management systems on all U.S.-flagged ferries.

"We'd be foolish to say that a safety management system wouldn't improve the safety of our vessels," Myers said. "We're open to ideas, and we'll be talking with the Coast Guard about it."

Myers said Interstate Navigation voluntarily installed new navigation electronics to add Automatic Radar Plotting Aid (ARPA) and advanced Automatic Identification System (AIS) capabilities on Block Island and a few other vessels.

"The upgraded electronics on our vessels include new Furuno 8000 series multicolor LCD display radars equipped with ARPA, digital satellite compasses and AIS interfaced with radar displays," Myers said in February. "The remaining vessels in our fleet will be completed in the upcoming weeks."

By Professional Mariner Staff