Probe: Tug sank in N.H. because of captains’ mistakes, boat design

A sinking of a tugboat at a New Hampshire bridge was blamed, in part, on the failure of the crew to change the mooring arrangement when the tidal current reversed.

While participating in a reconstruction project, Benjamin Bailey capsized on Oct. 24, 2012, alongside the Memorial Bridge in Portsmouth, N.H. The current flipped the boat after ill-conceived action by the captains, open hatches and the design of the fuel system, according to the U.S. Coast Guard investigative report.

The capsize moment occurred while the captain was attempting to maneuver the tug away from barges using a “reverse, forward, reverse” sequence, while fuel moved from the port fuel tanks to starboard fuel tanks. The boat listed 5°, and there was a 3-knot ebbing current.

“Water is starting to cascade over the low freeboard and the freeing ports are unable to adequately flush the deck of standing water. The back and forth movement from the tug maneuvering continues to push water onto the deck of the Benjamin Bailey pushing the starboard side of the vessel further underwater,” the report said.

The three crewmembers escaped without injury. The tug was declared a total loss.

The Coast Guard is pursuing an enforcement action against the tug owner, Riverside & Pickering Marine Contractors of Eliot, Maine. Coast Guard personnel observed an estimated 225 gallons of red-dyed marine diesel fuel discharging from the tug into the Piscataqua River, creating a visible sheen on the water.

The report blames human error and unclear company policy for the accident. The primary cause was the captain failing to change the position of the tug before the tide began to ebb. The problem was compounded when the relief captain on duty left to get lunch about 30 minutes before the accident, the report said.

When he left, the full-time port captain, who usually runs the tug but was supposed to be off that day, boarded to help with a repair job. But the captain made the problem worse in the actions he took to save the vessel, the Coast Guard concluded.

Upon arrival shortly before 0700, the captain moored the vessel on the port side with a line run to one of the barges. The bow of the boat was touching a second barge in front of it.

The crewmember opened the engine room watertight door on the port side that opens to the outside of the vessel. The captain and a crewmember conducted “routine preventative maintenance,” the report states.

One project was replacing the shaft packing on both propellers. Because the deck hand didn’t know how to complete the task, the port captain agreed to come in on his day off to assist. He arrived about 1100 and called the relief captain to ask him to bring a hard hat and life jacket to the parking lot. The relief captain left his cell phone in the pilothouse and the crewmember was unaware that he had left the vessel.

The captains met in the parking lot and a hard hat and life jacket were handed over. But “there was never a pass down,” the report states, and the relief captain “retained the role as ‘on hire’ captain for the day.” The relief captain walked away to get lunch.

High tide was expected at about 0757 and the river tide began to ebb at about 0900. Around 1100 the tug began listing to starboard. When the port captain boarded about 1116 he immediately asked the crewman why the ship was moored in the same configuration as when it first arrived.

“The tide was ebbing 3 knots perpendicular to the Benjamin Bailey’s starboard beam, giving the vessel a few degrees of a starboard list,” the report said. The watertight engine room door on the port side was still open and the line locker hatch on the bow was open. That was where shaft packing material was stored.

With the vessel listing 5° to starboard, the port captain told the crewmember that the “vessel needs to be moved. I’m not comfortable with the vessel’s current position.”

He ordered the deck hand to start the generator to power the engines and capstans. He ran a line from the starboard quarter capstan down the starboard side, through the port side bullnose on the bow, around the front of the tugboat’s push knee and to a kevel off the starboard bow of the tug on the adjacent deck barge.

For seven minutes, the captain adjusted the capstan settings and the line because he was not getting the power he wanted. The captain estimated he had made three turns on the gate line but with each turn the rubber fenders on the side of the vessel gripped tighter against the adjacent barge, holding Bailey in place.

With the water now ankle-deep at the capstan, the captain slackened the gate line and ran to the pilothouse. He attempted to use the engines to free the tug, first moving in reverse, then forward, then reverse. Abeam of the 3-knot ebbing current, the boat became unstable and its list was exacerbated by the weight of shifting fuel.

“The vessel is designed with a manually operated sluice valve that remains open to allow for even consumption of fuel between the port and starboard forward fuel tanks and the port and starboard aft fuel tanks,” the report states. “Once the Benjamin Bailey began to list, due to the force of the ebbing tide, it is believed that the fuel transferred from port to starboard giving the vessel starboard list and was unable to recover even keel because the vessel was being pinned against the crane barge on the Benjamin Bailey’s port side.”

The crew “abandoned the Benjamin Bailey seconds before the vessel completely submerged,” the report states.

“The force of the ebbing tide, pushing the vessel further underwater, eventually caused water to enter into the engine room through the open watertight door on the port side and open line locker hatch on the bow; however, neither are believed to have caused the original capsize,” the report states.

“The tide began to ebb long before” the two captains met in the parking lot at approximately 1115,” the report states. The relief captain decided to leave the vessel in the original mooring position because of “his comfort level having been a mariner for nearly 30 years.”

The report said the attempt to move the vessel away from the barge with the engines was a mistake because it brought more water on board. Had the crew attempted to move the vessel with just the capstan first, the Coast Guard report said they might have had better results.

“The use of a ‘gate line’ and starboard quarter capstan to move the bow away from the two barges was a good attempt,” the report states. “However, the force of the ebbing tide and current, against the starboard beam of the Benjamin Bailey, was too much.”

The Coast Guard cites “preconditions” that contributed to the accident, including company policies that were “unclear.”

The port captain is the senior captain in the company, but he was reluctant to second-guess the relief captain in charge because the other mariner had more years of experience.

The report calls the tug company’s handbook “inadequate. The document does not provide information on mooring arrangements… The company handbook did not define the role of the port captain.”

The handbook did not discuss environmental factors, such as the tide in the Piscataqua River. It left all decisions up to the captain’s discretion. The report says that while it is common for captains to leave for lunch at that work site, “not having a captain on board the vessel places the vessel at a higher risk of danger.”

Riverside & Pickering told Professional Mariner it has been working with Tug & Barge Solutions to develop an improved Towing Safety Management System (TSMS).

“The purpose has been to create a safer environment and a system that ensures compliance with all federal regulations and moves us closer to Subchapter M compliance,” said company president Ken Anderson. The TSMS “addresses risk mitigation for specific areas of operation, starting with the Piscataqua River.”

The TSMS addresses Coast Guard safety concerns including individual responsibilities, navigation assessments, operational stability including mooring procedures, watch change procedures, training to situational awareness and reinforcement of existing training practices.

By Professional Mariner Staff