Overcrowded anchorage key factor in collision on swollen Mississippi

The pilot aboard the cargo ship Manizales had dropped anchor in the swollen Mississippi River and was about to step onto a waiting crew boat when he recognized a problem: The loaded vessel was moving with the current.

The pilot, from the New Orleans-Baton Rouge Steamship Pilots Association (NOBRA), rushed back to the bridge, but by then the 390-foot ship had swung counterclockwise and was nearly perpendicular to the river flow. He issued engine and rudder commands, but the vessel did not respond. The pilot later told investigators the engines were not in standby mode, although the ship’s chief officer disputed that point.

Manizales drifted into the 623-foot bulk carrier Zen-Noh Grain Pegasus at mile marker 153 near Hester, La. The smaller ship caught on Pegasus’ anchor chain then collided with the bulker. Nobody was hurt on either vessel, but the incident caused $2.2 million in damage.

The collision occurred at 1631 on Jan. 17, 2016, in the mile-long Belmont Anchorage during a period of high water and fast current. Weather at the time was overcast but windy with gusts reaching 28 mph.

National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators determined that NOBRA’s decision to place Manizales in the Belmont Anchorage was a key factor in the incident. The ships were about 500 feet apart, which didn’t give Manizales’ crew enough time to respond.

“Anchoring several large vessels in close proximity during high-water conditions — when anchor-dragging often occurs — increased the likelihood of an accident,” the NTSB said in its accident report.

After loading an unspecified cargo, the Portuguese-flagged Manizales left mile marker 175 at about 1420 on Jan. 17. The pilot realized before getting underway that the ship wouldn’t go far. Eleven days earlier, the Board of New Orleans-Baton Rouge Steamship Pilot Examiners requested daylight transits only for southbound vessels due to river conditions from mile markers 233 to 90.5. Reaching mile marker 90.5 by dusk wasn’t possible, the report said.

The pilot requested a place to anchor and NOBRA directed the ship to Belmont Anchorage at mile marker 153, where three vessels were already stationed.

Two tugboats positioned Manizales as close as possible to the left bank to avoid the strong current. At about 1600, the pilot ordered anchors dropped on both sides of the bow at the “10 and 2 o’clock positions,” the NTSB said. The pilot was about to board a waiting crew boat when Manizales’ bow swung into the river.

Back in the wheelhouse, the pilot ordered half ahead and the rudder to starboard, but after a conversation on the bridge the pilot suggested the engines were not operational, the report said.

“I told you not to. I told you not to stop it,” the pilot said, apparently referring to the engines.

The ship’s chief officer claimed the engines were functional. He told investigators there was wheel wash after the pilot’s commands. Investigators could not confirm whether the engines functioned or not due to a corrupted voyage data recorder.

“Captain, we are going to hit the ship,” the pilot said moments later before blowing the ship’s whistle. “We can’t fix it.”

Manizales drifted at 5.5 knots until its propeller snagged on Pegasus’ starboard anchor chain. The ship moved around the bulker’s bow, where its stern crane caught around the port anchor chain, and a subsequent collision between the two ships tore off a section of Manizales’ bridge wing. The impact also damaged deck equipment and a freefall lifeboat.

Pegasus’ crew applied propulsion after the initial collision, pulling Manizales with it. The 12 crewmembers on Manizales abandoned ship onto a tugboat after it appeared their vessel might capsize, the report said. Crew returned after the ship broke free from Pegasus’ anchor line and continued drifting.

“The vessel continued to drift downriver for 2,300 feet until it was corralled by five towing vessels,” according to investigators.

Eleven days before the incident, the Coast Guard issued a marine safety bulletin in response to the high water. It recommended keeping engines in standby and using two anchors when stopping at anchorages. The bulletin also urged pilots to remain in the wheelhouse of anchored ships with drafts 30 feet or deeper.

Manizales’ pilot used two anchors, but authorities could not determine whether the engines remained on standby. Its draft was about 26 feet.

The mile-long Belmont Anchorage, created about three years before the accident, was meant to handle no more than three ships, the NTSB determined. After the accident, NOBRA determined only one vessel should anchor there during high water.

“Had this strategy been in place when the Manizales anchored, the collision would not have occurred,” the NTSB determined.

Navesco S.A. of Bogota, Colombia, owns Manizales, which was built in 2011. The company did not respond to an email seeking comment. Tamai Steamship Co. of Japan operates the Panamanian-flagged Zen-Noh Grain Pegasus, and attempts to contact the company were not successful.

Capt. Steve Hathorn of NOBRA said the Mississippi River’s velocity when the accident occurred was among the highest ever recorded. His agency is still reviewing the NTSB report but “would welcome suggestions from anyone that make the Mississippi River safer."

By Professional Mariner Staff