Towboat pilot ‘tried to outrun’ current before Louisiana bridge strike

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(WASHINGTON) — On March 15, 2020, about 0113 local time, the towing vessel Cooperative Spirit, pushing a 29-barge tow, was transiting downstream on the Lower Mississippi River at mile 121.6 near Luling, La., when the port side of the tow struck the eastern tower pier of the Hale Boggs Memorial Bridge.

The tow broke apart and began floating downriver. One of the barges sank, while the remaining barges were recovered by Cooperative Spirit and other towing vessels in the area. No pollution or injuries were reported.

Multiple barges in the tow, along with other barges moored along the river banks that were struck by drifting barges, were damaged and required repairs. Two barges were determined to be total constructive losses. The estimated cost of damages to the barges and cargo was $1.65 million.

Probable cause

​The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of the contact of the Cooperative Spirit tow with a pier of the Hale Boggs Memorial Bridge was the pilot not effectively compensating for the strong current while navigating a turn and approaching the bridge in high water conditions.

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Cooperative Spirit moored before the accident. NTSB photo

Report excerpt

Although the pilot stated that he used starboard rudder and increased engine speed in an attempt to counteract the current, the video evidence showed that he used limited rudder as the tow approached the bridge. The pilot chose to primarily use increased engine speed in an effort to move the tow to starboard away from the bridge pier, stating that he “tried to outrun (the current).”

However, the tow’s course over ground did not appreciably change as engine speed increased, while the increasing speed over ground reduced the time the pilot had to maneuver. Ultimately, the pilot’s actions in compensating for the strong current were ineffective, resulting in the tow hitting the bridge’s eastern tower pier.

– National Transportation Safety Board

By Professional Mariner Staff