Poor communication causes a close call on the Delaware

It was a beautiful, sunny winter afternoon in January 2003 when we arrived at the Mantua Creek anchorage across from the Philadelphia International Airport on the Delaware River. We had towed an empty oil barge down from New York Harbor to load at the Girard Point terminal, but our berth wasn’t open. With the light barge alongside the tug, we dropped the hook and settled in to wait our turn.

   Image Credit: Marya Butler

We were also listening with great interest to see how a developing situation within the Delaware’s heavy vessel traffic would play out. Coming on watch for the 1200 to 1800 shift, we overheard what later proved to be an unnecessarily and dangerously poor series of communications involving a U.S. Navy cargo ship about 500 to 600 feet in length, its small U.S. Coast Guard escort vessel and the larger merchant ships that needed to pass them. As the vessels approached our position, we were also able to watch, at close range, the near-collision that resulted from the lack of communication.

The Navy ship, which had picked up its Coast Guard escort downriver, was northbound above the Commodore Barry Bridge. The Navy ship had just been overtaken by a freighter doing about 16 knots, and a second freighter was closing from astern at a speed slightly faster than theirs. The pilot aboard the second freighter had spent considerable time trying to contact the Navy ship to make passing arrangements.

He eventually succeeded only by jumping in right after the first freighter had finished communicating with the Navy vessel. The first freighter had also had difficulty contacting the Navy vessel initially. It was apparent that, if there was a pilot aboard the Navy vessel, it was probably a Navy pilot who either was not regularly monitoring channel 13 on the VHF-FM radio, or who was only paying sporadic attention to it.

The Navy vessel was not enthusiastic about being overtaken, and said as much. But the Delaware River pilot aboard the freighter was persistent and informed them that he would, in fact, be passing them. He asked where they would prefer the passing to take place, and it was eventually agreed upon that they would effect the maneuver as they passed the anchorage off Philadelphia’s airport. This is a good location for passing because of the deep water in the anchorage, which is south of and immediately adjacent to the channel.

As the situation developed, the Navy vessel reduced speed to dead slow after finding out that it would have to wait for its assist tugs, which were delayed a few minutes while working another ship. The result of this was that they wound up almost dead in the water and somewhat to starboard of the centerline of the range. This still left what appeared to be adequate room for the freighter to pass safely, although it was tighter than it needed to be. By now the freighter was closing rapidly from astern and was turning to starboard to go around the Navy vessel. The assist tugs had just arrived and were putting aboard the docking pilot. The pilot of the freighter, who again was having no success communicating with the naval vessel, began relaying messages through the tugs. The tugs were working with the Navy vessel on another channel but also were monitoring 13 and were happy to oblige. Still, this added an unnecessary delay to the communications and also added the risk of mistakes made in the translation.

The final monkey wrench in the works was the presence of a Coast Guard 41-foot utility boat, with blue light flashing, that was providing a security escort for the Navy vessel and had positioned itself about 150 yards to starboard. This put it directly in the path of the freighter, which was now committed to the maneuver and had no other place to go but out of the channel and aground. The tiny Coast Guard boat was completely unaware of the freighter bearing down on it. Its crew could be seen staring off to port at the Navy vessel. The freighter’s pilot, who was by now frustrated by calling repeatedly for the patrol boat on channel 13 to no avail, eventually was able to get the Navy vessel, via the tugs, to contact the patrol boat and have them answer on channel 13.

I’m paraphrasing, but the exchange went something like this:

Patrol boat: “This is the Coast Guard.”

Freighter: “Coast Guard, this is the freighter bearing down on you. Do you see me? (Several seconds of silence.) Look directly astern of you, Coast Guard. I’m coming right at you from dead astern.” (Several more seconds of silence.)

Patrol boat: “Roger. OK, we see you.”

Freighter: “I’m overtaking the naval vessel and request that you keep clear of me.”

Patrol boat: “Yeah, we’re escorting this naval vessel. We’ll be here on its starboard side until it passes us, and then we will take up a position astern of it.”

Freighter: “I don’t care where you go. You just need to be someplace other than where you are.”

About 10 seconds elapsed with no detectable alteration of course by the Coast Guard boat and no visible indication that they had any intention of doing so. The freighter, meanwhile, continued to quickly close the distance.

Freighter: “Coast Guard, you are standing into danger. I need you to move from where you are.”

This, apparently, incensed the young coxswain of the 41-footer.

Patrol boat: “Do you know who you’re talking to?”

Freighter: “I know exactly who I’m talking to. If you stay where you are, you are going to get run over. I’m coming to port all the time!”

The alarm and disbelief in the pilot’s voice were unmistakable. A short distance above the anchorage the channel bends to the east onto the Eagle Point Range at the mouth of the Schuylkill. Beyond the anchorage, the only water deep enough for a ship lies within the channel. This had the effect of forcing the freighter’s pilot back over to port in front of the Navy vessel before he ran out of water.

Patrol boat: “We are providing a security escort for this naval vessel!”

Freighter: “Is it worth your life? You can escort them from anywhere. Why do you have to be there?”

It should be noted that at no time during this exchange was the danger signal sounded by either vessel.

Finally, the 41-footer turned to port, moving from its perilous position. The freighter completed the pass and got back over into the channel. No harm done, but from my point of view, much too close for comfort. This was not a high-speed meeting between a pair of drunk boaters in out-of-control Donzis on a July 4th weekend. All involved were supposed to be professionals.

To start with, there were several violations of the Rules of the Road. Rule 5 (Look-out, of the Steering & Sailing Rules) requires that a proper lookout be kept at all times. This was clearly not done aboard the 41-footer, as its crew were not even aware of the freighter’s presence until they were already in a bad position.

Rule 8 (Action to Avoid Collision) requires that any action taken shall be “made in ample time.” Again, this was not done.

Rule 9 (Narrow Channels) states that vessels less than 20 meters in length “shall not impede the passage of a vessel which can safely navigate only within a narrow channel or fairway.” This rule is often referred to informally as the Rule of Gross Tonnage and is frequently invoked by large vessels even when they have no legal basis for doing so, such as when they are in open waters with plenty of depth but don’t want to be bothered with a course change. They will often hold their course and speed in the hope that the smaller vessel will be intimidated. In this case, the freighter was obviously correct in claiming the right of way.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is the issue of the poor communications. Why did both the Navy vessel and the 41-footer fail to maintain a proper listening watch on channel 13? For the Navy vessel, this was required under the provisions of the Vessel Bridge-to-Bridge Radiotelephone Act.

The Coast Guard 41-footer, while not technically required to do so by the act, should have been monitoring it anyway. You have a public-safety vessel navigating on a river, in one of the busiest ports in America, while providing a security escort for a Navy vessel. Heavy traffic consisting of ships and tug-and-barge units was prevalent in both directions. To not monitor channel 13 under such circumstances showed poor judgement, whether it was legally required or not.

In the end, all of the modern communications equipment carried aboard these vessels wound up not amounting to much. Tunnel vision, failure to obey the Rules of the Road and an inability to communicate accurately and rapidly nearly got them. There was probably also a bit of arrogance on everyone’s part.

In fairness to the coxswain of the 41-footer, I must mention that he and his crew were probably focused very intently on their escort at the time of the incident. I do not doubt that they were taking their recently assigned security duties extremely seriously, as we all must since the events of Sept. 11, 2001. They were trying to do their job as best they could. Still, a flashing blue law-enforcement light doesn’t trump the Rules of the Road or substitute for good seamanship.

A large part of the problem stems from the significant cultural divide between the Coast Guard, with its numerous branches, and the professional mariners that they are tasked with regulating and policing. Despite frequent interactions on the water and dockside, the worlds inhabited by the small-boat crews of the Coast Guard and the civilian mariners staffing ships, tugboats and barges, oilfield-supply vessels, crew boats and fishing vessels are very different. Our respective nautical backgrounds and experiences tend to have very little in common, which results in differing perspectives that often are at odds. We often don’t see eye to eye. With few exceptions, neither party knows what it is like to wear the other’s shoes. Perhaps some closer contact and shared experiences between the groups would go a long way toward closing the gap.

Joel Milton is a merchant mariner who works on a coastal towing vessel based in the New York area. His experience includes eight years of active duty in the Coast Guard.

By Professional Mariner Staff