Research vessel floods, sinks in Gulf of Mexico; crew escapes to lifeboats

U.S. Coast Guard helicopter crews rescued 12 people from lifeboats after their research vessel capsized and later sank in the Gulf of Mexico during rough weather.

The 170-foot Seaprobe was about 141 miles south of Pensacola, Fla., when it started taking on water late on Jan. 17. Crews spent nearly four hours trying to control the flooding before escaping into lifeboats. The Coast Guard received the vessel’s distress signal at about 0145 on Jan. 18.

Lt. j.g. Daniel Knauss, a public affairs officer for the Coast Guard’s Aviation Training Center Mobile, said the sinking remains under investigation.

“The cause … may never be fully known,” he said. “It sank in four to five thousand feet of water.”

Weather conditions deteriorated in the area starting at 0800 on Jan. 17 and were at their worst by midnight, just before the distress signal, according to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather buoy 30 miles northeast of the sinking. Sustained wind speeds were as strong as 40 mph and wave heights rose to 10 to 14 feet.

The U.S.-flagged Seaprobe is owned by Houston-based Fugro-McClelland Marine Geosciences. The company conducts offshore engineering and research services for governments and the mining and oil industries. Records show the ship was built in 1974.

The company declined to answer questions about the incident.

Three Coast Guard aircraft responded to Seaprobe’s distress signal, led by an HC-144 Ocean Sentry crew from ATC Mobile that was first to arrive at the scene.

Knauss, who was aboard the twin-engine aircraft, said Seaprobe was sinking but its hull was still visible from the air when they arrived at about 0430. Spotters wearing night-vision goggles located lifeboats, about a mile away from the ship, from the strobe lights on the crew’s life jackets.

“They lit every strobe light they had,” Knauss said. “They threw every life vest into the water to make a huge debris field” visible from the air.

Two MH-60 Jayhawk helicopters, one from Mobile and another from Coast Guard Air Station Clearwater, Fla., arrived at the scene soon afterward. With help from a rescue swimmer, the Clearwater crew hoisted seven from the lifeboats using a rescue bucket. The Mobile crew then rescued the remaining five.

Knauss estimates it took about an hour to retrieve all 12 people from the life rafts. He said Seaprobe was completely upside down and just below the surface when the rescue ended at about 0700.

“They were covered in diesel fuel and extremely cold, but every one of them was wearing a life jacket,” Petty Officer 2nd Class Robert McDonald, ATC Mobile flight mechanic, said of the ship’s crew.

Three people from Seaprobe were hospitalized in Mobile with non-life-threatening injuries including seasickness. The other crewmembers did not require medical treatment.

By Professional Mariner Staff