TSB: Tugboat sank after repair failed to seal gap in deck plating

A tugboat sank near British Columbia’s Merry Island last year because inadequate maintenance and an incomplete repair allowed downflooding, Canada’s Transportation Safety Board (TSB) has determined.

The 35-foot tug Syringa sank March 18, 2015, after departing Saltery Bay with a gap in its deck plating, the TSB wrote in a recent report. The master had temporarily filled the gap using cedar wedges and sealant prior to departure.

“The gap in the main plating … was temporarily repaired with materials that were not sufficient to withstand the conditions of the voyage,” the investigators wrote. “Neither the cropped starboard-side air vent nor the cable glands in the winch well were protected against water ingress; the incision in the watertight bulkhead had not been repaired nor protected to prevent water from moving between hull compartments.” 

Syringa was owned by Spick & Sons Projects Ltd. During the transit through the Strait of Georgia, the tug shipped water on deck for approximately three hours, the investigators wrote. The water sloshing about on deck, possibly in combination with the loose end of the tow rope, likely caused some of the cedar wedges and sealant to become dislodged, allowing water to enter the lazarette. 

As the lazarette filled up, the vessel began to sink by the stern. Once the lazarette was flooded, water could subsequently enter the engine room through an incision in the watertight bulkhead between these two spaces. The high-level bilge alarms for the engine room had been disconnected at some point before the voyage. The investigation was unable to determine the effectiveness of the two electric bilge pumps that serviced the engine room. The tug and tow were not being monitored for water ingress during the voyage, and the master had no indication of the flooding until it began to affect the vessel’s movement, the report said. 

Syringa had been towing the 105-foot barge Matcon 1 laden with construction equipment. The barge was released before the sinking. 

Shortly after the master became aware of the flooding, the vessel lost all reserve buoyancy and sank. The two crewmembers abandoned the vessel into the water and managed to swim to shore without the assistance of lifesaving equipment or a distress call.

On Syringa, the TSB found shortcomings in emergency preparedness. The owners had not provided the master with procedures for the safe operation of the vessel or for dealing with emergencies, the TSB said. The crewmembers had not participated in emergency drills, and the deck hand had not taken marine emergency duties training.

The TSB determined that the master was working with an expired master limited certificate, which had been issued in 2005 and was valid for tugboats of not more than 15 gross tons operating in Howe Sound and the Strait of Georgia between Sechelt and Point Grey within 5 nm from shore. In addition, the geographical limitations on the certificate had been exceeded.

Life jackets and exposure suits were stowed in a location that was not easily accessible, the investigators found. The life buoys were lashed to the wheelhouse, making them hard to access quickly and preventing them from being able to float free. The life raft had not undergone its mandatory annual servicing in 2014.

During the emergency response, the crew on Syringa was exposed to hazards that resulted from these shortcomings, according to the TSB.

“For example, prior to abandoning the vessel, the crew had not donned lifesaving equipment or inflated the life raft, which left them in the situation of having to jump into cold water, without flotation or thermal protection, and swim to shore,” the report stated. “Furthermore, without an emergency position indicating radio beacon (EPIRB) and not having made a distress call, no one in a position to assist them was aware of their situation.” 

“If lifesaving equipment is not properly maintained, fitted and stowed, it may not function as intended, increasing the risks to crewmembers during an emergency,” the report added. “Without procedures, familiarization and training, the crew were unaware of any problems with their equipment, thus depriving them of its use during an emergency.”

At 14.57 gross tons, Syringa slipped through the cracks at Transport Canada (TC) as TC is currently not required to inspect or issue inspection certificates to tugs less than 15 gross tons, and these vessels are not required to operate under a safety management system. 

The TSB said the onus is on the authorized representative (AR) to ensure compliance with the regulations, and there is minimal regulatory oversight to identify shortcomings in the event ARs are not fulfilling their responsibilities.

“The board is concerned that, without adequate oversight by the Department of Transport, shortcomings in the safety management and operations of tugs less than 15 gt may not be addressed,” the TSB wrote.

When contacted by Professional Mariner, John Spick at Spick & Sons Projects declined to comment on the report.

By Professional Mariner Staff