Tug on ice patrol hits infamous reef in Prince William Sound, spills fuel

This chart shows the approximate location of the grounding of the tugboat Pathfinder. The escort tugboat was on ice patrol outside the main Prince William Sound shipping channels when it struck Bligh Reef. U.S. Coast Guard investigators found no evidence of problems with the vessel’s navigation systems. (Virginia Howe illustration/Source: U.S. Coast Guard)

The U.S. Coast Guard is investigating whether inattentiveness in the wheelhouse was a factor when a tugboat struck a reef in Prince William Sound, off Alaska, and spilled as much as 6,410 gallons of fuel into the water.

The captain and second mate of the Crowley Maritime Corp. tug Pathfinder were suspended without pay after the boat grounded on Bligh Reef, which was the site of the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster. The 136-foot Pathfinder strayed over the reef at 1812 on Dec. 23, 2009, while on ice patrol. The impact tore away a section of the vessel’s keel.

The experienced crew, which was very familiar with the shallow area, ran aground even though obvious physical and electronic navigation aids warn mariners to stay away. The Coast Guard found no problems with the boat’s mechanical or electronic systems, said Chief Petty Officer Dana Warr, a Coast Guard spokesman.

“They hit Bligh Reef dead center,” said Cmdr. Darryl Verfaillie, captain of the port for Prince William Sound. “The damage is from stem to stern, and her props were cupped — bent backwards — like a C-type shape. She was ripped open and is missing 3 or 4 feet of steel in some sections, right down the centerline.”

Pathfinder is normally a ship-escort and docking tug for tankers serving the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System. On the night of the grounding, however, the tug was operating outside the main shipping channels, monitoring ice floes from Columbia Glacier. The vessel was sailing to Valdez at the time of the incident.

“She was designated that night as an ice scout,” Verfaillie said. “As part of that, she has to run outside the lanes, because we institute ice-routing measures when there’s ice within a mile outside the lanes. Beyond a mile on each side is where she normally goes. That night it was all clear. There was no ice and she was headed home.”

At least two tankers were delayed during the crisis response, which involved tugboats and oil-recovery vessels. Pathfinder was lightered and escorted back to Valdez for repairs. Crowley said two diesel fuel tanks were ruptured.

“All of us at Crowley are deeply disappointed and saddened that this grounding occurred,” said Rockwell Smith, the company’s vice president and general manager for Pacific/Alaska. “We regret that we’ve disrupted service to Alyeska and that fuel has been released into the water. We will get to the bottom of this and take all necessary corrective actions.”

The tugboat’s draft is between 17 and 20 feet, Crowley spokesman Mark Miller said.

Pathfinder was equipped with two radars and GPS. The vessel did not have electronic charting and is not required to have it, Verfaillie said.

“Bligh Reef not only has a blinking light, but it also has a Racon, a pulse of energy that goes out that shows up on the radar,” Verfaillie said. “It’s hard to miss.”

The 59-foot-high light blinks every four seconds. Visibility at the time of the grounding was two miles, according to a statement from the Coast Guard. Weather conditions were overcast, with drizzle, rain and snow. There were 3-foot waves and 15-knot winds. Hard rain sometimes can interfere with radar.

“The tugboat’s master and second mate have been relieved of duty pending further investigation,” Crowley said in a statement.

Neither Crowley nor the Coast Guard specified who was on watch at the time of the accident. All six crewmembers passed alcohol tests.

“The captain had been operating in Prince William Sound for over 20 years, and he was due to retire in eight months … The vessel has been there a hundred times,” Verfaillie said.

Pathfinder underwent temporary repairs in preparation for towing to Seattle for permanent repairs.

The Coast Guard in February was still investigating the cause of the accident.

Dom Yanchunas

By Professional Mariner Staff