Pilot loses his license after ship struck pier while he wasn’t wearing his eyeglasses

A Delaware River pilot was forced to surrender his license for actions that investigators say caused a large containership to strike an abandoned pier near downtown Philadelphia, investigators said.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said in a recent report that the pilot became disoriented and missed a turn in the river. His failure to wear his corrective eyeglasses and consult navigational equipment aboard Rickmers Tokyo were factors in the accident.

“The probable cause of the allision of the … Rickmers Tokyo with Pier 11 in the Delaware River was the river pilot not executing the turn at Port Richmond due to his lack of situational awareness … and his inadequate use of all navigation equipment,” the NTSB said.

“Contributing to the allision was the river pilot’s failure to wear his corrective eyewear, which was required and would have assisted with distant visual cues on the dark evening,” the report continued.

The state of Pennsylvania suspended the pilot’s license until his retirement about 15 months after the accident, according to Mike Kaszuba, chief of investigations for U.S. Coast Guard Sector Delaware Bay. He said the Coast Guard issued the unidentified mariner a warning letter for his actions.

The 633-foot Rickmers Tokyo left the Tioga Marine Terminal in Philadelphia at about 1845 on Dec. 23, 2011, bound for Antwerp, Belgium, with varied cargo. The tugboat Reid McAllister helped the ship pivot away from the terminal to face downriver, a process overseen by a docking pilot.

The report said there were no other vessels in the area and that the weather was clear with light winds and skies that were about 50 percent overcast.

The docking pilot transferred conning authority to the river pilot at about 1900. After issuing a series of rudder commands, the vessel sailed west-southwest toward open water on the right side of the channel, the report said. Directly ahead was a 17.5-degree port turn in the river.

At about 1908, the vessel had left the channel and the pilot began noticing dark, tree-like shapes directly ahead of the ship. About 30 seconds later, he ordered hard turns to port to bring the vessel away from the riverbank. By then, it was too late.

The hulking ship slammed into the corner of the corrugated metal pier, opening a 3-foot-by-92-foot gash in the starboard bow at the waterline. The ship’s interior shell plate was bent inward, puncturing two ballast tanks. The impact caused structural damage to the vessel’s internal frames.

Damage to the ship was estimated at about $550,000, while the pier needed an estimated $122,000 in repairs, the report said.

Subsequent investigation of the accident indicates multiple errors by the pilot.

For instance, at the time of the accident, the 69-year-old pilot believed the ship was much farther upriver than it actually was. According to the report, he told investigators the next day that he believed the ship struck a different abandoned pier more than 1,000 feet upriver.

“The pilot’s perception that the allision location was about 0.5 nm from the actual accident site indicates a significant error on his part, especially considering that he was navigating a narrow channel within a constrained river,” the NTSB report said.

Indeed, the 400-foot-wide channel passes almost a dozen abandoned piers, and at some points these unlit, tree-covered fingers come within 50 feet of the navigable channel. These piers are located near the bend in the river and are sometimes difficult to recognize due to ambient light from the downtown city lights in the background, the report said.

The pilot claimed the tidal current was stronger than he expected and questioned the accuracy of the ship’s port radar heading indicator. Investigators later determined the tide was normal and found that the radar was “functioning properly to within 1 degree.”

“Radar images taken from the VDR clearly showed the vessel heading, river bank, piers and buoys along the channel minutes before the allision with Pier 11,” the report said.

Crew told investigators that the pilot remained seated in front of the port radar display from about 1859 until the ship struck the pier. The report indicates the pilot appeared to guide the ship by looking out bridge windows and relying on a laptop loaded with navigational software.

The river pilot had been piloting on the Delaware River since 1970. His pilot’s license requires that he wear prescription corrective lenses to correct nearsightedness. However, on the night of the accident, the pilot and the crew said he was not wearing his glasses.

“As the river pilot’s uncorrected vision was 20/50, not using his glasses when looking ahead reduced his ability to perceive distant visual cues on a dark night,” the report said.

J. Ward Guilday, president of the Pilots’ Association for the Bay and River Delaware, declined to comment on the report, noting that he was not familiar with the report or all details of the accident. He added that he was not the association’s president at that time.

Rickmers Tokyo, which was built in 2002 and sails under a Marshall Islands flag, is operated by Rickmers-Linie, part of the Hamburg, Germany-based Rickmers Group. Marko Stampehl, a Rickmers-Linie spokesman, confirmed in an e-mail that the company had seen the report and had “taken note of the information and conclusions therein.”

“This matter is being dealt with by the vessel’s hull and machinery underwriters and their appointed experts,” he said. “We therefore do not wish to make any statements.”

About 15 minutes after the allision, the pilot notified the Coast Guard, initially saying the ship was undamaged. About 30 minutes later, the crew reported a large hole in the hull at the waterline.

The pilot then guided the damaged ship to an anchorage in Marcus Hook, Pa., about 22 miles from the accident site, and disembarked.

By Professional Mariner Staff