Tanker in collision with box ship may have been avoiding towboat

The pilot of a chemical tanker that collided with a containership near Houston in October 2011 may have been trying to avoid a towboat, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said.

The accident involving the inbound 782-foot containership MSC Nederland and the outbound tanker 799-foot Elka Apollon occurred in the Houston Ship Channel near an intersection with the Bayport Ship Channel at about 0947 on Oct. 29.

According to a preliminary report, pilots aboard both vessels had communicated over radio for a port-to-port passage. But as the tanker was preparing to meet the containership, pilots were forced to take action to avoid the towboat Mr. Earl, which had just exited the Bayport channel pushing a fuel barge.

"The pilot on the Elka Apollon issued commands to avoid the towboat and barge with left rudder orders and in so doing set the tanker on a heading across and to the left in the channel. The pilot on the tanker tried to regain control of the vessel with a hard starboard rudder order in an effort to avoid the inbound MSC Nederland," the NTSB report states.

"The pilot on the MSC Nederland saw the approaching tanker and ordered emergency full ahead and hard to port to try to swing his vessel away from the tanker's bow. In spite of the efforts of both pilots, the two vessels collided," it continued.

Elka Apollon suffered damage to its port bow area in the collision. The MSC Nederland was damaged on its port side on the main deck level near its superstructure, according to the report.

The impact also caused three shipping containers to fall from MSC Nederland onto the forward deck of Elka Apollon. One container, which was carrying tractor equipment, leaked hydraulic fluid onto the tanker's deck.

Nobody was injured in the collision, which did not require the shipping lanes to be closed.

Steven Stokely, chief of marine investigations for U.S. Coast Guard Sector Houston/Galveston, said investigators from both agencies are "looking at all actions from the operators of each vessel involved," but haven't yet identified "any direct causes or responsible parties."

"We currently have a lot of information to review and interpret and it will take some time for the USCG and NTSB team to do so," Stokely said in November.

Stokely said the towboat Mr. Earl, operated by Cheryl K. Inc., of Richmond, Texas, was traveling in a designated barge lane when it came close to the tanker.

Representatives from Cheryl K. did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Capt. Steve Conway, head of the Houston Pilots, declined to comment pending the ongoing investigation.

The Greek-flagged Elka Apollon, operated by European Product Carriers, was underway to Freeport, Texas, with 345,000 gallons of naphtha and 24 crewmembers, according to the NTSB report. MSC Nederland, a Panamanian-flagged vessel operated by Mediterranean Shipping Co., was en route to the Bayport Container Terminal from Altamira, Mexico, with 1,023 containers.

Officials with Mediterranean Shipping did not reply to an e-mail seeking information on the accident. A spokesperson for European Product Carriers could not be reached for comment at the company's Athens, Greece, offices.

NTSB interviewed pilots and crew on all three ships involved in the collision as well as Vessel Traffic Service watch-standers. Data records from all three vessels were also reviewed, the report said.

Relevant crew, pilots and watch-standers were also tested for drugs and alcohol. The results of those tests were not included in the preliminary report.

After the collision, both vessels sailed into the port of Houston on their own power, Stokely said. Both vessels underwent temporary repairs, passed inspection and left port. Permanent repairs were expected to follow in a few weeks, he said.

By Professional Mariner Staff