Barely 30 minutes into sea trials off the coast of Oahu, Hawaii, the tugboat Nalani was showing signs of trouble.
Tom Collins Jr., of the Hawaii Pilots, noticed the 3,000-hp vessel was “riding funny” after he turned over the controls. He saw the stern riding unusually low in the water. It got worse from there.
“Mayday, mayday, mayday,” Collins said over the radio before giving the tug’s location and name. “The vessel appears to be starting to sink.”
Everyone on board escaped before the stricken tug went down. All 11 people were rescued by two good Samaritan vessels operating nearby that heard the distress call.
The Coast Guard is investigating the incident, which occurred at about 1513 on Jan. 22 roughly 2.5 miles from shore. Weather was sunny and clear and seas were minimal, said PA2 Tara Molle of Sector Honolulu.
The cause of the accident is unknown, she said.
The 95-foot Nalani, registered in Panama, was sold to a Panamanian company last year. The twin-screw tug was built in 1981 in a Louisiana boatyard.
Collins said the vessel spent time at the Marisco Shipyard in Kapolei, Hawaii, before the sinking. It’s not clear what type of repairs, if any, were performed during that time. The vessel was scheduled to tow two barges from Hawaii to Chile the next day, he said.
The tug’s final voyage began at about 1430 for approximately an hour of sea trials. Collins said he guided the vessel out of the channel without incident and handed controls to the Panamanian captain.
Soon afterward, Collins noticed a problem with the boat, which was steaming at about 4 knots in open water.
“It took less than eight minutes from that time until we were in the water,” Collins said. In that time, he and the crew put on life jackets, prepared the life raft and left the ship.
Collins, the captain and another man were in the water clinging to the life raft. The remaining crew were in the raft.
The towing vessel Tiger 7 and a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration patrol boat operating nearby responded to the emergency call. The NOAA vessel retrieved nine people while the 86-foot Tiger 7 picked up two, the Coast Guard said.
“It sank very quickly,” Molle said. “By the time they sent the mayday, those vessels were already in the area.”
The Coast Guard responded to the emergency with an 87-foot coastal patrol boat and a 45-foot response boat. It dispatched an MH-65 Dolphin helicopter. A Coast Guard vessel carried the Nalani’s crew back to Honolulu. Nobody was injured.
“Not so much as a boo-boo,” Collins said.
Nalani was carrying about 75,000 gallons of diesel fuel when it sank. Authorities discovered a sheen near where the vessel went down and later recovered about 500 gallons of diesel, Molle said.
Coast Guard crews patrolled the area by boat and plane and interviewed lifeguards at nearby beaches about possible environmental damage. Those efforts ceased on Jan. 25 after authorities determined there was “minimal sheening.”
The tugboat sank in more than 2,000 feet of water and will not be salvaged, Molle said. Any remaining fuel on board is expected to dissipate.