Silting may have played role in Lower Mississippi grounding

A tanker carrying a full load of carbon black ran aground in the Lower Mississippi River after exiting the navigation channel, possibly while trying to avoid silting in the channel.

A difficult salvage operation was needed to refloat the 800-foot Ratna Puja, which grounded June 13 just above Head of Passes, five miles from the Gulf of Mexico. Eventually five tugboats were used to free the India-flagged vessel after it was stuck for two days.

No breakdowns of steering, mechanical or electronic navigation systems were reported aboard the 58,446-gross-ton ship. A pilot was aboard Ratna Puja when it exited the channel to starboard and ran aground, the Crescent River Port Pilots' Association said.

Ratna Puja is part of the fleet of India Steamship, a division of Chambal Fertilisers and Chemicals Ltd., based in Kolkata, India. India Steamship's general manager of quality and safety, Capt. Hanesh Narang, said the ship had slowed down and was maneuvering around areas of silting before it ran aground.

"It appears that she hit mud lumps in the channel, and the pilot had no choice but to try to make way through the lumps," Narang said.

The salvor, Donjon-SMIT, said silting from springtime flooding complicated the operation to refloat the vessel. The U.S. Coast Guard is investigating whether silting played any role in the grounding.

The fully laden Ratna Puja drew 42 feet of water during the outbound voyage. A 43-foot restriction was in effect. An Army Corps of Engineers hydrographic survey for June 13 showed that the navigation channel's minimum depth met or exceeded the normal 45-foot standard in that area. The ship ran aground far outside the channel in a spot where the depth was less than 40 feet.

"The vessel was approximately 375 feet outside of the navigation channel when it deviated course and approximately 750 feet outside the navigation channel when it grounded," Army Corps spokeswoman Rachel Rodi said. "The location where the vessel grounded is not a part of our normal dredging operations."

Mark Nelson, the pilots' chief operating officer, wouldn't say why the ship went so far outside of the channel, referring the question to the association's president, A.J. Gibbs, who declined to be interviewed.

The grounding happened as the ship approached the Pilottown Anchorage, but the crew was not planning to anchor, Narang said.

The ship approached the area at a speed of around 14.5 knots and then slowed over a five-minute period before coming to rest shortly after 1900, according to voyage data provided by PortVision.

The grounding and response did not block navigation and the channel was never closed, said Coast Guard spokeswoman Petty Officer Elizabeth Bordelon.

Bordelon said no product spilled from the tanker. Donjon-SMIT reported that the hull remained intact.

Donjon-SMIT readied a backup lightering plan, because four and then five tugboats initially struggled to dislodge Ratna Puja.

"The vessel was broadside into the current, so there was a very real concern that the situation could worsen quickly," Donjon-SMIT President Paul Hankins said. "We were also worried about the rapid silting around the vessel."

On June 14 and 15, the tugboats scoured silt from around the stuck ship. Eventually the tugs refloated the vessel — without the need for lightering.

After a stop at South West Pass Fairway anchorage for inspection, the Coast Guard cleared Ratna Puja to resume its outbound voyage.

Narang said there was some "minimal" damage to the bilge keel area, but the classification society determined that repairs could wait until the next dry-dock visit.

By Professional Mariner Staff