Pushboat captain charged with operating while intoxicated

A towing vessel captain was arrested after he allegedly passed out in the wheelhouse while intoxicated, causing his boat to strike a fishing boat and a dock along a Louisiana bayou.

The pushboat Trey Paul ran into a mud bank and sideswiped a docked 28-foot skiff in Bayou Grand Caillou, the Terrebonne Parish Sheriff’s Office said. Witnesses reported that the 42-foot towing vessel, which was pushing two barges, was off course and out of control in the area south of the Falgout Canal Bridge.

“The Coast Guard received a report that the Trey Paul was being operated erratically and possibly allided with a shrimp boat and pier," said Petty Officer Jaclyn Young, a Coast Guard spokeswoman in New Orleans.

The incident on Aug. 21, 2008, happened 1.8 miles southwest of Dulac. At the time, the northbound Trey Paul was pushing two barges loaded with oilfield equipment belonging to a Houma customer.

A parish Water Patrol boat was able to stop the towing vessel a few miles away, along the Grand Caillou Road shoreline, said Maj. Malcolm Wolfe of the sheriff’s department. There, the sheriff’s investigators and Coast Guard responders found the Trey Paul captain in a disoriented state.

The captain was taken to Chabert Medical Center in Houma for a medical evaluation and drug screening. He was charged with second-offense driving while intoxicated, hit and run and reckless operation of a watercraft. He also was charged with possession of the sleeping medication Ambien, a controlled dangerous substance, said Carlos Lazarus, the parish’s first assistant district attorney.

The drug is also known by the scientific name zolpidem. It is used to treat insomnia and can be addictive. Side effects include hallucinations, altered thought patterns, impaired judgment and difficulty maintaining balance or motor skills.

The sheriff’s investigators determined that no doctor had prescribed the sleeping pills for the towboat captain.

“If he had a prescription, he wouldn’t have been charged" with possessing a controlled substance, Wolfe said.

Lazarus said investigators also found a bottle that had contained 60 OxyContin pills prescribed for another Trey Paul crewman. Although the prescription had been filled just three days earlier, the bottle was empty.

The captain was in possession of two kinds of pills, which were still undergoing chemical analysis in late December, Lazarus said. No other members of the crew were charged.

The Trey Paul captain “was in no condition to make a statement, he was so impaired," Lazarus said. “He was found asleep at the wheel. No one could make any sense of what he was saying."

The captain was sent to the Terrebonne Parish Jail. He was released on bond the next day. He pleaded not guilty and appeared again in court in December. A trial date was set for Feb. 25.

Young said the Coast Guard investigator took the captain’s license and placed him in an expedited hearing process. She said there was no serious damage to the dock. The owner of the shrimp boat reported only that his vessel was scratched on its stern.

The owner and operator of Trey Paul was Louisiana Carriers Inc. John Plaisance, a manager with the company, said the 600-hp towing vessel was not damaged. He said there was a two-man crew — the captain and a deck hand — on that voyage. Plaisance declined to comment on whether the captain is still employed by the company.

Dom Yanchunas

By Professional Mariner Staff