Tugboat sinks, drifts underwater while it’s still attached to barge until towline snaps

A tugboat sank off the California coast and was suspended underwater while its deck barge drifted, until the towline eventually parted.

Delta Captain, an 83-foot twin screw tugboat, sank in stormy conditions approximately 13 nm off Point Sur, Calif., on April 13. The four crewmembers were rescued by a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter from Air Station San Francisco. There were no reports of injuries.

Seas off Point Sur were 14 to 16 feet with gale force winds at 1455, when the Coast Guard received a distress call from Delta Captain. The tug was towing a deck barge with a crane and carried a total of 22,000 gallons of diesel — 18,000 on the tugboat and 4,000 on the barge.

After sinking, the tugboat remained attached by a 1,400-foot tow cable beneath the barge. The tug and barge drifted south along the coast of California toward Monterey, where the tow cable snapped and the tugboat came to rest on the ocean floor. The barge continued to drift for roughly 300 miles, until it was retrieved off the coast of Palm Beach by two tugboats commissioned by Coast Guard Sector Los Angeles.

Within an hour of the sinking, three Coast Guard rescue crews had reported to the scene: the HH-65 Dolphin rescue helicopter, a 47-foot lifeboat from Station Monterey and the cutter Sockeye from Bodega Bay.

The helicopter located the crewmembers in a lifeboat and deployed a rescue swimmer to hoist them aboard. All four crewmembers were transported to Monterey where they received medical evaluation and were released with no injuries.

As of June, Delta Captain was still on the ocean floor south of Monterey. The tug is not considered an environmental threat, but the California Department of Fish and Wildlife Office of Spill Prevention and Response is monitoring the situation.

Delta Captain came to rest on the ocean floor at a depth of almost 3,000 feet,” said Alexia Retallack, spokeswoman for the Office of Spill Prevention and Response. “The temperature and pressure at that depth causes diesel to condense, so that it will be released very slowly, if at all.”

Retallack said the technology necessary to salvage the vessel is not available, and sending divers down at that depth would pose a high risk to human life.

“Each environmental risk, however small, must be weighed against the safety concerns of sending divers in. The greatest depth at which we have pursued a sunken vessel is around 800 feet, and that was using remotely operated vehicles,” said Retallack.

Delta Captain is owned by Marine Express of Alameda, Calif. The company declined to comment on the incident. The official cause of the sinking is still under investigation.

By Professional Mariner Staff