The Coast Guard is investigating whether anyone aboard a Mississippi River towboat was paying attention when the vessel went out of control and struck a cruise ship.
A barge being pushed by the towing vessel Repentance hit the cruise ship Fantasy shortly before 0600 Feb. 10 at New Orleans, the Coast Guard said. The barge gouged a 30-foot-long gash along the side of the Carnival Cruise Lines vessel.
Repentance was pushing six rice barges at the time. The towboat’s captain reported that his boat was on “lock turn” — with engines holding the boat and its barges against the river’s right descending bank — while waiting to enter the Industrial Canal.
While the captain was downstairs in the engine room, something caused the boat and barges to separate from the bank and dart across the river’s channel. In their path was the 855-foot inbound cruise ship, which was heading toward the Erato Street Cruise Terminal.
When they noticed the towboat and barges, Fantasy‘s officers tried unsuccessfully to radio the boat’s captain and warn him to back down, said Lt. Cmdr. Cheri Ben-Iesau, the Coast Guard investigator.
“The cruise ship (crew) saw him up there and tried to call, but he didn’t respond to the calls,” Ben-Iesau said. “The next thing they know, the barge in tow ran up against the cruise ship.”
A fore corner of one the lead barges pierced the hull of the 70,367-ton cruise ship. The dents and gash were 5 feet above the waterline on the ship’s port stern. No one was injured, and there was no pollution, the Coast Guard said.
The collision happened at the river’s mile marker 88, at a busy right-angle turn, Algiers Bend.
In a statement, Carnival Cruise Lines said Fantasy was traveling upriver at a speed of 8 knots. There was not much opportunity for the cruise ship’s officers to take evasive action.
“The ability to maneuver was restricted to the width of the channel,” the cruise line’s statement said.
“There is limited maneuverability with a cruise ship in this river,” the Coast Guard’s Ben-Iesau said. “It’s a congested and very tight bend.”
The Coast Guard’s investigation was still open in late March. Ben-Iesau declined to specify a cause of the accident, and she said no one could specify the distance between the riverbank and the point of collision in the channel.
Ben-Iesau also wouldn’t say whether investigators found evidence of any mechanical malfunctions on the towboat. The collision caused no damage to the barge.
Repentance is operated by American Tugs Inc. of Belle Chasse, La. The company said it knew of no mechanical problems with the towboat.
“As far as the working order of the vessel, it was in top shape,” said Molly Guidry, an administrator with American Tugs.
The captain of Repentance gave a statement to the Coast Guard explaining that he was in the engine room for a few minutes while waiting on “lock turn.”
“It was in gear, pushed against the bank, and it was standing by right there, but the current must have taken it away when he was downstairs and he didn’t realize it,” Guidry said.
Repentance had a four-man crew, including the captain. When the captain is away from the controls, company policy dictates that he assign another crewmember to stand watch, Guidry said.
“We always have a lookout — always,” said Guidry, but she said she was “not sure if he did that” in this case.
Fantasy was loaded with a full contingent of about 2,050 passengers and 920 crew. The collision happened at the tail end of a western Caribbean trip, and the cruise ship pulled in safely to its berth at Erato Street.
The passengers disembarked as scheduled. It wasn’t until after another load of passengers went aboard for a five-day Valentine’s Day voyage that the cruise line realized that the damage to the hull would take several days to repair. Carnival cancelled the voyage.
Those passengers were allowed to stay on the ship overnight but had to disembark the next day. Carnival apologized and offered them a full refund, a 25-percent discount off a future cruise and assistance with flight bookings.
Bahamian-flagged Fantasy went to Julius Street Wharf for repairs. Fantasy was ready to sail on its next scheduled voyage eight days later.