Tanker damages Ambrose Light, raising questions about its future

High winds off Sandy Hook, N.J., may have been one factor causing a 799-foot tanker to sideswipe Ambrose Light, crippling the beacon and perhaps ending its long history of guiding ships to New York Harbor.

The Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board are investigating why the ship’s crew didn’t report the allision for almost seven hours.

The Coast Guard said the inbound Bahamas-flagged Axel Spirit was approaching Ambrose Channel at 0200 Nov. 3 when the incident happened. That morning, the region was experiencing severe weather caused by Tropical Storm Noel.

Winds were 20 to 25 knots, with 4- to 5-foot seas, the Coast Guard said. Axel Spirit’s crew reported no malfunctions in navigation or steering systems.

Axel Spirit was on its way to a Chevron terminal in Perth Amboy, N.J., when it struck Ambrose Light. The 76-foot-high steel structure, also known as Ambrose Tower, is 12 miles southeast of Staten Island, N.Y.

The mate on a nearby pilot launch noticed that the light wasn’t working properly and notified the Coast Guard at 0315. Axel Spirit interests didn’t report the incident until 0850, the Coast Guard said. The ship is owned and operated by Teekay Corp.

“The vessel suffered some damage to the outer hull, but it was not breached,” said Gillian Redmond, a spokeswoman for the Vancouver-based tanker line. Teekay “continues to fully cooperate with the investigation,” she said.

The allision critically damaged Ambrose Light, which marks the convergence of four busy shipping lanes leading in and out of the Port of New York and New Jersey. The tower lies 4 miles outside Ambrose Channel. It also signals the Sandy Hook Pilots’ rendezvous zone for the ships.

While the light continued to shine, the tower suffered “substantial damage to its legs (and) stanchion, and the revolving light is bent and no longer rotating,” the Coast Guard said in a statement.

A Safety Marine Information Broadcast alert notified mariners of the condition of the navigation aid. After a helicopter survey indicated severe damage to the aid, the cutter Willow installed a temporary light buoy about 300 yards in front of the crippled tower on Nov. 7.

At first, the Coast Guard announced that it would formulate a plan to fix the light tower. The job was expected to cost millions of dollars.

“While the actual repair of Ambrose Light is a long-term project, the temporary navigation light … will ensure safety standards are in place for all vessels entering New York Harbor,” Lt. j.g. Kristin Conville, incident management officer for Sector New York, said Nov. 8, five days after the allision.

Later, however, Coast Guard officials cast some doubt on the prospect of restoring the light in this era of electronic navigation equipment and global positioning. By December, Coast Guard public affairs officers and investigators at Staten Island and Manhattan would not confirm that the aid would definitely be repaired or replaced.

The temporary light buoy was still in place as of December.

The four seaways converging near Ambrose Light are Ambrose Channel, Nantucket-Ambrose Shipping Lane, Hudson Canyon-Ambrose Shipping Lane and Barnegat-Ambrose Shipping Lane.

The earliest version of the Ambrose Light tower was installed in 1967. It replaced Lightship Ambrose. A lightship had floated there since 1823.

In 1996, the 754-foot Greek tanker Aegeo struck the tower.

The current steel tower, which includes an automated weather station, was constructed in 1999. Under normal conditions, it is visible 18 nautical miles out.

In 2001, it was struck by the 492-foot Malta-flagged freighter Kouros V.

If the Coast Guard is worried about the cost of replacing the light tower, it might consider moving it back to a previous location slightly west near the current green Fisherman’s Wreck buoy, which is in shallower water. It would be cheaper to place the light tower there, said Capt. Dennis Wheeler, New York president of the Sandy Hook Pilots.

“When the Coast Guard decides if they are going to replace the tower, we’d like to have some input on the position of the tower,” Wheeler said.

Axel Spirit, built in 2004, had a crew of 22 aboard. Redmond said the tanker was en route to Perth Amboy from Cayo Arcas, Mexico.

The Coast Guard said the tanker had “contact damage” to its hull in the area of the Nos. 4 and 5 ballast tanks. Temporary repairs were made, and the Coast Guard lifted a captain-of-the-port restriction on Nov. 20. Redmond said Axel Spirit was undergoing permanent repairs in December.

By Professional Mariner Staff