The operator of a pilot boat in Texas died in January when he was trapped inside the vessel after it capsized during a rendezvous with a 168-foot offshore oil-support vessel in heavy seas in the Gulf of Mexico.
A Galveston-Texas City pilot, who had just transferred to the pilot boat from the larger vessel, was also trapped inside the overturned boat but managed to escape and was rescued.
Pilot boat operator George Robert Frazier, 55, was killed when his 57-foot boat, Galtex, overturned at the conclusion of a pilot transfer Jan. 20 off Galveston, Texas. He had worked for the Galveston-Texas City Pilots for 17 years.
Frazier had just completed a pilot disembarkation from MV Sanco Sea when his boat capsized. The pilot, Capt. William R. Kern III, was rescued by another pilot-boat crew after being trapped in the overturned vessel for 25 minutes.
A small-craft advisory was in effect at the time of the incident — about 1200 hours. Seas were 5 to 7 feet, with winds between 20 and 30 knots and overcast skies.
Adam Eggers, a Coast Guard public affairs officer in Houston, said the Sanco Sea crew witnessed the accident and reported the emergency immediately. By early February, Coast Guard investigators were trying to determine whether the two vessels maneuvered appropriately while the pilot boat was attempting to separate from the larger vessel.
“That’s something that will be looked at,” Eggers said. The heavy weather, too, is “going to be a piece of the puzzle.”
While most pilot transfers occur via a rope ladder alongside the hull of the ship, Kern simply stepped off the Sanco Sea deck and onto the pilot boat because the two decks were flush, said Chris J. Gutierrez, presiding officer of the Galveston-Texas City Pilots.
The pilot transfer was successful and uneventful, Gutierrez said. Then the pilot boat capsized suddenly.
“They were still alongside,” Gutierrez said. “The pilot who survived said they were unable to break away from the side of the Sanco Sea.”
Sanco Sea is operated by Sanco Shipping AS of Gjerdsvika, Norway. The company’s attorney in the United States, Robert L. Klawetter, said, “The Sanco Sea interests have no comment at this time beyond an unequivocal denial that the Sanco Sea was a factor in this tragic incident.”
Kern endured a harrowing 25 minutes trapped inside the cabin of the upside-down pilot boat. Kern was not wearing a floatation device at the time of the transfer — Gutierrez said that is not a requirement — but he was able to grab a life vest that floated past him.
The boat began to sink stern first. As it did, a nearby hatch that had been submerged elevated above the waterline.
“As the boat started to settle by the stern, there was an escape hatch that came out of the water and he popped out of that escape hatch,” said Gutierrez.
By then, the outbound pilot boat Texas, Houston pilot boat Bayou City, Sanco Sea and other vessels were searching the area, about 1 nautical mile east of the Galveston south jetty near channel entrance buoys 5 and 6. The Coast Guard sent a cutter and a rescue boat from Galveston and a helicopter from Houston.
Texas located Kern floating in the heavy seas; the water temperature was in the mid-50s. The operator of Texas and two pilots rescued Kern and rushed him to the dock. Galtex sank shortly after the rescue. Kern was treated for bruises and scratches at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.
The Coast Guard and other vessels continued searching for Frazier. Divers from T&T Marine Salvage Inc. located Frazier’s body the next day inside the sunken boat. The body was recovered at about 1340 hours, the Coast Guard said.
Gutierrez said Galtex was manufactured in 1983 by Breaux Craft Ltd. of Louisiana. It was powered by two eight-cylinder MAN diesel engines. It measures 46 gross tons.
The boat was raised and placed in secure storage, where Coast Guard and insurance company engineers inspected it.
The Gibraltar-flagged Sanco Sea measures 1,129 gross tons.
The pilot disembarkation happened on the ship’s port side. Upon approaching the ship and during the disembarkation, Frazier communicated a series of instructions to the ship’s bridge via radio.
“Generally the pilot boat operator will decide what course and speed the ship needs to maintain,” Gutierrez said. “The last command (Kern) heard was, ‘Come to a course of 250.’ That most likely means a turn to starboard.”
Perhaps the ship didn’t behave exactly the way Frazier expected, he said.
“It’s not unknown for the ship to turn a certain way, depending on where the swell is running,” Gutierrez said.
Eggers said even veteran operators should consider aborting a pilot exchange temporarily if heavy seas move the ship out of the optimal position.
“Keep situational awareness as high as possible — the weather on the scene and the size of one boat as it relates to the other — and make sure everybody knows what’s going on in the operation,” Eggers said. “Once a swell changes slightly the direction of the boat, you can always move the boat away and try again on the approach.”
Frazier was a lifelong Galveston resident. His funeral was Jan. 25.
“He was diligent and very good at his job — a very competent professional mariner,” Gutierrez said. “He will be remembered as a good friend by his fellow pilots and the office staff.”
Five members or employees of pilot organizations have died in the line of duty in U.S. waters since January 2006.