Tugboat captain dies after falling overboard near Nome


The captain of an oceangoing tugboat died after falling between the tug and a barge while the vessels were transiting off Nome, Alaska.

David Whitemarsh, 56, of Kelso, Wash., fell into the frigid waters of Norton Sound at about 0750 on July 4. He was working aboard the Dunlap Towing vessel Polar Ranger, which was towing the 380-foot container barge Pacific Trader.

Nobody on the tug saw the captain fall in, said Ken Marsh, spokesman for the Alaska State Troopers, which responded to the incident. The vessels’ exact location relative to Nome’s small port could not be confirmed.

“He went overboard and it was not directly witnessed,” Marsh said. “But what was reported to the trooper is that it appeared he fell in while trying to board the barge from the tug.”

The Coast Guard confirmed that Whitemarsh fell between the two vessels. The service is investigating the incident but has not determined the cause, spokeswoman Amanda Norcross said.

Forecasts for July 4 in Nome called for drizzle and temperatures in the upper 40s. Wave heights averaged 2 to 3 feet during the six-hour period in which the captain fell overboard, according to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration buoy near Nome. Water temperatures in Norton Sound, an inlet of the Bering Sea, were in the low 50s at the time.

Crew aboard the 126-foot, 4,960-hp Polar Ranger, assisted by an unidentified good Samaritan boat, pulled Whitemarsh from the water 10 to 15 minutes after he fell overboard. State and federal authorities were not sure if he was wearing a personal flotation device.

“The ocean temperature in Norton Sound is quite cold, and the survival rate for people without a survival suit is often measured in minutes,” Marsh said.

Crew performed CPR on Whitemarsh aboard the tugboat during transport to shore. Lifesaving efforts continued there while they awaited paramedics. He was taken to Norton Sound Regional Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

The state medical examiner’s office conducted an autopsy, which Marsh said is standard procedure for this type of incident. The cause of death was not available at press time, and the troopers’ investigation was still open. Foul play is not suspected.

Another crewman aboard Polar Ranger was a licensed master for the vessel and acted as captain until relief crew arrived.

Whitemarsh had a long maritime career and was well known on the Seattle waterfront. Those who knew him described him as a well-respected veteran captain. According to his LinkedIn account, he worked as a captain and crewman on commercial fishing vessels before joining Sause Brothers towing company as a chief mate from July 1997 to August 2007. It is not clear when he joined Dunlap Towing.

Tugs operated by Dunlap, of La Conner, Wash., make regular runs between Seattle and several Alaskan ports, often with a container barge in tow. Dunlap Towing officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the incident.

By Professional Mariner Staff