NTSB: Pilot’s errors caused Houston Ship Channel crane casualty

Shortly before dawn on a quiet summer morning, as his vessel was moving a few thousand feet to a new berth in the Houston Ship Channel, the chief mate aboard bulk carrier Mary Ann Hudson saw something unusual.

The crane arms from the docked 649-foot bulk carrier Star Grip passed directly over the deck of the 587-foot Mary Ann Hudson near two cargo hatches. The mate radioed the bridge, and a pilot guiding Mary Ann Hudson ordered maneuvers intended to pull the stern away from the docked vessel.

It was already too late.

Mary Ann Hudson ran into one of Star Grip’s extended crane arms at about 0530. The impact damaged Star Grip’s crane, as well as the superstructure, crane and railings aboard Mary Ann Hudson. There were no injuries.

The June 6, 2012, accident was probably caused by pilot error, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said in a December 2013 investigative report. The pilot aboard Mary Ann Hudson was a member of the Houston Pilots Association.

“The probable cause of the collision between bulk carriers  Mary Ann Hudson  and Star Grip was the pilot’s ineffective handling of the Mary Ann Hudson and his ineff ective use of the two tugboats to maneuver the vessel around the Star Grip’s crane arms, which were extending into the navigable waterway,” the NTSB report said.

The U.S.-flagged Mary Ann Hudson was moving about a half-mile from a berth at City Dock 21 in the Houston Ship Channel to City Dock 29. The Norwegian-flagged Star Grip was moored port side to City Dock 23 when the accident occurred.

The pilot boarded Mary Ann Hudson at about 0445 on June 6 to prepare to relocate the ship. The pilot positioned the tugboats  Mars  and Andrew K on the starboard quarter and starboard bow, according to the NTSB report. Weather was clear and w inds were calm when Mary Ann Hudson left its berth at 0521.

“Once the pilot confirmed that the vessel was clear, he instructed both tugs to slack their lines and lie alongside before he ordered slow ahead with 20 degrees of port rudder. Once the ship was on centerline in the channel, he eased the port rudder command,” the report said.

Up ahead, Star Grip’s two cantilever crane arms were open and extended over the channel. Around this time, the pilot recalled to investigators, he felt Mary Ann Hudson’s stern drift toward Star Grip.

Seven minutes after leaving its berth, the chief mate aboard Mary Ann Hudson noticed the crane arms extending over his vessel’s deck.

“The pilot ordered 20 degree port rudder and half ahead, and ordered the Andrew K (on the starboard bow) to back easy, intending to lift the vessel away from the Star Grip,” the report said. “However, these actions were not enough to move the Mary Ann Hudson clear of the crane.”

“The pilot told investigators that, in his opinion, the reason the Mary Ann Hudson did not move clear of the crane was that the (tugboat) Mars was alongside on the starboard quarter,” the report continued.

The Houston Pilots Association said the accident occurred in an extremely narrow section of the channel and that it has taken steps to avoid a similar incident.

“Following this incident, the Houston Pilots worked out an arrangement with the Port Authority and the docked Star vessels to have their gear extended back in from out over the side of the vessel when a pilot on a passing ship thought it was necessary,” said Capt. Michael A. Morris, presiding officer of the Houston Pilots.

Attempts to confirm this arrangement with the Port of Houston were not successful. E-mails to the agency’s spokeswoman were not returned.

The accident caused substantial damage to both vessels. Repairs to Mary Ann Hudson’s superstructure and port stores crane was estimated at $250,000.

According to the report, Star Grip’s No. 2 crane sustained extensive damage. The impact pushed it into the forward No. 1 crane. Total repairs exceeded $250,000.

After the collision, Mary Ann Hudson continued to City Dock 29, where it docked at 0601.

Bridge personnel aboard Mary Ann Hudson and crew aboard both tugboats were tested for drugs and alcohol shortly after the collision. According to the report, all results came back negative.

By Professional Mariner Staff