NTSB cites docking pilot in Bayonne grounding

The containership struck on the north side of the Kill Van Kull channel just west of the Bayonne Bridge. (Ginny Howe Illustration/Source: Jeppesen Marine)

Investigators blame the 2006 grounding of a containership near Bayonne, N.J., on a docking pilot’s failure to use his radar, personnel and tugboats properly.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said an experienced member of the Metro Pilots probably lost situational awareness while at the conn of New Delhi Express. He was navigating the 800-foot ship through thick fog in the Kill Van Kull at 0420 on April 15, 2006.

Because of a dredging operation that narrowed the channel, a one-way traffic order was in effect. Shortly after the westbound ship went under the Bayonne Bridge, it steered too far to starboard and struck a submerged ledge along the north side of the channel. Speed was 6 knots.

Visibility was near zero when the accident happened, the NTSB said. Still, the docking pilot never stationed anyone at the radar. A member of the Sandy Hook Pilots was aboard, after piloting the ship up Lower and Upper New York Bay. The docking pilot also failed to provide the ship’s captain with details of the channel restrictions.

In a June 2007 letter, the NTSB emphasized that the docking pilot could have asked the Sandy Hook pilot to keep an eye on the radar. If New Delhi Express’s captain had known more about the one-way traffic hazard, the captain could have been more helpful too, said NTSB investigator Capt. Rob Jones. The second mate and helmsman were also on the bridge.

“The radar is foremost,” Jones said. “If he made the (channel restrictions) known to the captain of the vessel — or stationed the Sandy Hook pilot at the radar — it would have been useful to his transit. He could have taken a little of the burden off.
“There was more talent on that bridge that he could have made use of.”

The docking pilot was unaware that the ship was in a precarious position until the vessel went under the Bayonne Bridge. That’s when someone on one of the three tugboats noticed that the ship was near the red light on the underside of the bridge, denoting the northern edge of the channel. Soon the ship was listing 10° to starboard.

Judging from the recordings of the audio communications, the docking pilot lost his bearings and was unclear in communicating orders to the trio of tugs to help guide his vessel back to the south and away from danger, the NTSB said.

One tug, Turecamo Girls, was attempting to get a line in place from the ship’s port bow when the docking pilot simply instructed that tug to help in looking out. Kimberly Turecamo was in a good position to push on the starboard quarter but never received any request to do that. Only Miriam Moran, pushing on the starboard bow, was exerting any force on the ship in the moments before the grounding, the NTSB said.

“He had three tugs there, but only one was able to do anything,” Jones said. “He called for the fore tug to start pushing, but he never called for the aft tug to start pushing. It’s possible they could have assisted and pushed that bow away from that ledge.”

The grounding caused an estimated $1.5 million in damage to New Delhi Express. The rocky ledge pierced the hull, poking a hole in an empty fuel oil tank and in a ballast tank. Two of the three tugs also had unspecified damage. There were no injuries or pollution.

New Delhi Express came to rest on the bottom in the center of Bergen Point West Reach. An incoming tide refloated the ship at 0630. The ship continued on to Port Newark. The Hong Kong-flagged vessel’s voyage had originated in Gibraltar with a crew of 21.

The Metro Pilots member has been a docking pilot since 1989. The grounding exemplifies the need for continuing education to ensure that pilots practice good coordination and communication habits when weather conditions are challenging, the investigators said. Pilots also must pay close attention to the vessel’s pilot card, which explains handling characteristics.

“When you’re operating in fog, it’s really important to maintain situational awareness of everything that’s going on around you, and to use all of the resources you have on the bridge — not just equipment but also people,” said Jack Spencer, director of the NTSB’s Office of Marine Safety.

The NTSB became the lead investigating agency because the Coast Guard’s initial probe determined that a buoy in Kill Van Kull was out of position. In a June 2007 report, the NTSB ruled that the erroneous position of the buoy was not a cause of the New Delhi Express grounding.

Still, the NTSB wrote a letter to the Coast Guard emphasizing that buoy tenders must verify all positioning data during checks and re-deployments.

The NTSB wrote a separate letter to 14 state pilot commissions describing the circumstances of the New Delhi Express grounding. NTSB Chairman Mark V. Rosenker recommended that the pilot commissions require harbor and docking pilots to participate in joint training exercises on bridge resource management.

Charles A. Licata, executive director of the New Jersey Maritime Pilot and Docking Commission, declined to comment. He said his agency is also investigating the New Delhi Express incident.

By Professional Mariner Staff