A powerful escort tugboat ran into a docked tanker loaded with nearly 1 million barrels of crude oil in Valdez, Alaska, opening a gash in the ship’s hull that allowed ballast water, but no oil, to escape.
The incident happened just before midnight on Jan. 10 as the tug Courageous approached the U.S.-flagged Polar Endeavour docked at the Valdez Marine Terminal. The mate at the helm lost control of the 12,300-hp tugboat moments before impact. One mariner aboard Courageous was injured.
Andres Morales, director of emergency preparedness and response for the Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., told a local advisory board that “operator error” appeared to be a leading cause. He called the incident “unacceptable” and said an investigation would explore all aspects of what led to it.
“(If) we do not really take a hard look at everything, something else will happen and we need to make sure we are preventing the next one,” Morales told members of the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council. “This was a very serious incident and we need to get ahead of that.”
The Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. operates the 800-mile Trans-Alaska Pipeline System. Courageous operator Edison Chouest Offshore of Cut Off, La., has a contract with Alyeska to perform tanker escorts in and around Valdez and Prince William Sound. Both companies are investigating the incident, and the U.S. Coast Guard has opened a separate inquiry.
Much of what is publicly known about the incident emerged during a Jan. 28 meeting of the citizens’ advisory council. The nonprofit formed after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, and it works closely with Alyeska and other partners to advocate for safe tanker transports within the region.
The double-hulled Polar Endeavour is part of the ConocoPhillips Polar Tankers fleet. The company did not respond to a request for information about the incident, and Alyeska declined to make Morales available for an interview.
Crew aboard the 895-foot Polar Endeavour were making final preparations for departure at the time of the incident. The ship, docked at Valdez Marine Terminal Berth 4, was loaded with 980,000 barrels of crude oil. Monty Morgan, a Valdez-based marine superintendent for Polar Tankers, told the advisory council that no one on the ship witnessed the impact.
Courageous was helmed at the time by a mate. Another mate also was in the wheelhouse ahead of a scheduled shift change. The tug’s captain was not in the wheelhouse, contrary to standing orders for that type of transit, Morales said.
The mate on watch guided Courageous across the Port of Valdez toward the docked ship using the tug’s autopilot feature. At one point, an alarm began sounding in the wheelhouse. The other mate helped address the alarm. Meanwhile, the mate helming the tug used manual throttle controls to bring the tug to a stop near the tanker to await further orders. Then, he released the throttle controls.
“At that point, the tug reverted to auto … and worked forward until it hit the ship,” Morales said. Attempts by the mate to avoid that collision weren’t successful, he added.
The tug’s raised bow hit the ship. The impact opened a 6-foot gash in Polar Endeavour’s steel hull roughly 20 feet above the waterline, in the location of an aft trim tank. Vertical frames around the fracture also were twisted and pushed inward by about 18 inches, Morgan said.
An unidentified mariner walking in a stairwell on the tug was thrown forward upon impact. The mariner was treated by a medic and later at a local medical center before returning home for additional treatment.
No one aboard the tanker was injured. After the impact, the ship’s crew inspected numerous tanks for additional damage or pollution. Repair teams placed a half-inch doubler plate inside the affected tank to patch the hull fracture. The American Bureau of Shipping (ABS) and the Coast Guard signed off on the temporary repairs.
“Outside of an ugly dent on the side of the ship, there are no concerns about the seaworthiness (of it),” Morgan said.
Courageous was towed to a nearby dock after the impact. Crewmembers were interviewed and tested for drugs and alcohol. Onboard systems also were reviewed to consider potential issues that may have caused the incident. It’s not clear when operator error emerged as a likely cause.
Alyeska allowed Courageous to return to service the next day with the same crew after completing sea trials and a seaworthiness review by ABS and the Coast Guard. Morales told the advisory council in late January that he regretted that decision.
The mates and captain on Courageous started working in Valdez in mid-2018, at about the time Edison Chouest began its escort contract with Alyeska. The three mariners are no longer working in Valdez, according to Morales. Details of their departure and their employment status with Edison Chouest were not available.
Edison Chouest did not respond to inquiries about the incident. Company tug crews have since ceased using autopilot in the Port of Valdez and the immediate vicinity, Alyeska said.
Morales acknowledged some issues with Edison Chouest during the two-plus years it has performed ship-handling work in Valdez. The number of incidents has exceeded what occurred during the final years of Crowley Maritime’s tenure working in Valdez, he said. Some of the injuries sustained by mariners have been serious.
Alyeska would not share details about those incidents. However, a company spokeswoman said the recordable incident rate in 2020 was the third-lowest in 43 years of operation.
Brooke Taylor, a spokeswoman for the advisory council, said the lack of pollution does not minimize the seriousness of the incident. She said the group is now focused on understanding what happened, and what steps are in place to prevent future incidents.
“The tugs are a crucial part of the prevention system in Prince William Sound,” she said in a recent phone interview. “If there is something that needs to be corrected or developed to ensure this doesn’t happen again, we want to know what that is going to be.”