Tanker runs aground off New York City beach

Kristin Polling lies aground off Far Rockaway beach in New York City. Investigators are examining whether the single-hull coastal tanker strayed from the channel or whether shifting sands in East Rockaway Inlet contributed to the grounding. [Courtesy U.S. Coast Guard]

The Coast Guard and Army Corps of Engineers are discussing ways to make New York’s East Rockaway Inlet safer after a 72-year-old single-hull tanker ran aground in November.

The coastwise tanker Kristin Poling grounded on the sandy bottom shortly after midnight on the morning of Nov. 10. The 281-foot vessel remained stuck about 450 yards from the Far Rockaway beach for about 48 hours.

Emergency and environmental agencies ordered a major oil-recovery response because the tanker was carrying 672,000 gallons of heating oil and diesel fuel. In the end, there was no hull breach and no fuel spilled. One of the ship’s seven crew suffered bruises and was treated in a local hospital.

While Kristin Poling was stuck, much of the fuel was offloaded onto a barge. Tugboats helped to dislodge the vessel from the sandbar at high tide at 0007 on Nov. 12.

The Coast Guard is investigating whether the crew navigated away from the marked channel before the grounding, said Lt. Cmdr. Alan Blume, chief of the prevention department with the Coast Guard’s Long Island Sound Sector New Haven, Conn. The ship wasn’t in the proper channel when it stuck fast, but it could have moved from where it originally grounded.

Another possibility is that the bottom changed since the last time buoys were charted — just a month before.

“These are barrier islands, and the sand shifts,” Blume said. “The inlet itself does tend to move. We had just relocated two of the gates — the red and the green — in October to mark best water. But there had been some storms that came up along the coast this fall, and we know with each storm it can change the swells.”

Such changes in swell patterns can influence how and where shoals form, he explained.

Kristin Poling is one of the oldest single-hull tankers still operating. The vessel, originally named Poughkeepsie Socony, was built in 1934 for Standard Oil Co. of New York. The ship hauled fuel on the upper Hudson River and Lake Champlain canal routes for decades. Blume said new tanks were installed in the 1950s.

Kristin Poling‘s current owner is Poling & Cutler Marine Transportation Inc. of Middlesex County, N.J. The 2,160-dwt, 1,546-gross-ton vessel makes frequent runs from Newark and through East Rockaway Inlet to deliver fuel to Sprague Energy’s terminal in Oceanside, Long Island.

Under the terms of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which is phasing out the use of single-hull tankers, Kristin Poling will have to be retired by 2015.

The November incident was the third time Kristin Poling had run aground in the inlet. After the ship grounded in 2004, while carrying 755,000 gallons of heating oil, the Coast Guard issued new regulations for petroleum tankers with a draft greater than 5 feet operating in East Rockaway Inlet. Kristin Poling, which has a 12-foot draft when fully loaded, was ordered to carry less fuel.

Officials with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation have identified East Rockaway Inlet as one of the state’s largest areas of tidal wetlands. The emergency response to the most recent grounding included 20,000 feet of oil recovery boom, 10 vacuum trucks, 10 oil skimmers, 20 workboats, 45 contractors and more than 70 people.

The Coast Guard ordered other vessels in the inlet to use extreme caution while the oil-recovery equipment was in the area, but the inlet remained open to navigation. Blume said the inlet is normally busy with fuel tankers, commercial fishing vessels and recreational boats.

Deep Sea Supply Shipowning AS’s tugboat Sea Tiger pulled Kristin Poling off the sand and into open water with the help of two support tugs. Even the tugs experienced trouble navigating around the shifting, sandy bottom.

“The significant challenge they faced was the shoaling in the inlet,” Blume said. “They had to work in close quarters, and they did a great job.”

The Coast Guard doesn’t suspect any mechanical problems with Kristin Poling‘s steering or propulsion as potential causes of the accident, Blume said. Wind of as much as 15 knots and 6-foot waves were reported.

The investigation was continuing in late November.

“We’re looking at the vessel’s navigation and will be comparing that to the bottom surveys and where the buoys were marked,” Blume said. “One of the rudders was missing, but it’s not clear if that rudder came off when she went aground or when she was refloated.”

Kristin Poling proceeded under its own power to New York, where the vessel underwent a dive survey at Gravesend Bay Anchorage. The ship then went to Caddell Dry Dock & Repair Co. in Staten Island for repairs.

East Rockaway Inlet was last dredged during the winter of 2004-05. It was scheduled for dredging next in winter 2006-07. The inlet may simply need more frequent dredging or some other engineering solution to keep the channel clear, Blume said.

“It’s a very dynamic inlet, so that’s one thing we’ll be looking at with the Army Corps of Engineers to try to reduce the likelihood of grounding,” Blume said.

The Coast Guard urges all mariners to pay attention to buoys, weather conditions and swells when navigating through East Rockaway Inlet. “Definitely proceed with caution and time it for high water, and you’ve really got to watch the swell,” Blume said. “Be aware of the spread of the sandbar. Even from the last transit, it may change for the next transit.”

By Professional Mariner Staff