Poor coordination between master, pilot cited in San Juan pier strike


Norwegian Epic sailed into San Juan, Puerto Rico, for repairs to its port-side propeller motor. While docking, the cruise ship’s port bow struck two mooring dolphins, gouging the hull and causing $3.5 million in damage to port infrastructure. 

National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators identified communication failures and poor coordination between the master and pilot while docking the 1,080-foot ship. As a result, the maneuver itself, conducted with two tugboats, went badly awry. 

“There was a point in the maneuver when both the tugboats and the (ship’s) thrusters were in opposition to each other’s actions, demonstrating the lack of coordination between the master and the pilot, beginning with the master/pilot exchange and continuing throughout the docking evolution,” the NTSB said in its accident report.

The allision happened Feb. 12, 2019, at about 1730 as the ship approached Pier 3 in San Juan. There were 6,023 passengers and crew aboard. No injuries were reported, and there was no pollution. 

Norwegian Epic diverted to San Juan after suffering problems with its hybrid propulsion system while en route to Tortola. The system consists of diesel engines generating electricity for 32,184-hp electric shaft motors turning the port and starboard propellers. The motor driving the port propeller lost half its power two days before the pier strike, and a day before it lost all power. Crew locked it at sea to avoid damage to the turning gear, the NTSB said.  

Norwegian Epic’s captain had never before docked the ship in San Juan. The San Juan pilot boarded the ship at 1640 as the vessel approached the entrance to the harbor. The two men discussed the propulsion issues that limited the ship’s speed to 12 knots. They also made initial plans about who would conn the vessel during different parts of the maneuver, with the master guiding the ship into its berth facing north. 

The tide within the harbor was ebbing at 1 knot, while winds from the east blew 15 to 20 knots with occasional higher gusts. The pilot articulated a plan to steer east toward Pier 4, occupied by the cruise ship Caribbean Princess, and let the wind, thrusters and tugboats Beth McAllister and Dorothy McAllister guide the vessel into Pier 3, just to the west. 

The master took the conn at 1717, moments after the pilot warned about the ship’s proximity to Pier 3. The wind was blowing at 25 knots from the north-northeast. 

Norwegian Epic continued its turn to the left, with its bow about 1,250 feet from the end of Pier 3 and about 1,500 feet from Caribbean Princess,” the NTSB said. “With all four bow thrusters and all three stern thrusters online, the master began maneuvering Norwegian Epic toward Pier 3 east, using a combination of the bow thrusters, stern thrusters, rudders and the starboard engine.”

In two photos from the NTSB report, the cruise ship strikes a mooring dolphin and catwalk at Pier 3 in San Juan, Puerto Rico, then hits a second dolphin. Damage to port infrastructure totaled $3.5 million.

Joe Tolley/NTSB photo

The report stated that the master “did not always announce his actions or relay orders to anyone on the bridge.” Meanwhile, the pilot alternated between English and Spanish in his tugboat commands. The master’s lone communication regarding the tugs occurred at 1723, when he told the pilot to order them to pull full astern to pull the cruise ship closer to Pier 4. 

Less than a minute later, the captain recognized the ship would “touch” the pier. The first impact happened at 1724:55, causing a dolphin and its connecting catwalk to collapse into the harbor. The ship then hit a second dolphin closer to shore, and it also collapsed along with its catwalk.
The ship sustained two 6-foot-long gashes in its port-side bow above the waterline that cost about $200,000 to repair. The two damaged dolphins and catwalk segments cost roughly $3.5 million to replace, the report said.         
NTSB investigators highlighted shortcomings in communication between the master and pilot leading up to the pier strike. For instance, the two never discussed which of them would control the tugboats. The master also appeared to use gestures rather than verbally articulating his orders. 

NTSB investigators said the voyage data recorder revealed only one instance when distances to Pier 3 and Caribbean Princess were relayed to the bridge, depriving the master of crucial information as he guided the ship into position. 

“This would have given the master better indication of what thrusters to use, the power at which to run them, and direction to move the ship, as well as how to use the tugs,” the report said. 

Norwegian Cruise Lines, which owns the now 12-year-old ship registered in the Bahamas, did not respond to an inquiry about the NTSB findings. The San Juan Bay Pilots could not be reached for comment.

By Professional Mariner Staff