Va. judge brings guilty verdict against tug captain who ran over skiff

A Virginia tugboat captain was convicted of improper operation after his tow ran over a skiff, dumping its 77-year-old occupant into the Elizabeth River.

William Spencer, 69, was ordered to pay a $200 fine for the misdemeanor, which had been reduced from a more serious charge of reckless operation.

Spencer was at the helm of Albert Pike on the morning of Nov. 26, 2012, when his 120-foot barge plowed into the 17-foot skiff near the edge of the river’s Southern Branch navigation channel. While pushing the barge, Spencer was making a turn to port, intending to moor the barge at a pier. Speed was about 1.5 knots.

The accident happened at 0845 in clear weather. According to testimony, neither Spencer nor his mate saw the little boat. The skiff’s sole occupant, who was drift-fishing, never saw the tow approaching from behind him. After being dumped into the water, the 77-year-old man was assisted by a good Samaritan vessel and eventually taken aboard Albert Pike, where Spencer helped him and took precautions against hypothermia.

The skiff was not found until three days later, when Albert Pike moved the barge away from the pier and the capsized, damaged skiff popped out from underneath the barge.

Virginia Marine Police charged Spencer with reckless operation of a vessel for allegedly failing to maintain a proper lookout. In an April trial in Chesapeake General District Court, the judge found no evidence of willful disregard for safety and convicted him of the reduced offense, still a misdemeanor.

“It’s the captain’s responsibility to operate the vessel safely,” Judge Timothy Wright said in announcing his verdict and the $200 fine.

Albert Pike is owned by Skanska USA Civil Southeast Inc. The southbound tug and barge, which carried demolition debris from the Norfolk Naval Shipyard, were turning into the Higgerson-Buchanan Inc. dock when the barge’s bow swamped the 17-foot Maycraft owned by James Phelps, who had no time to radio or to restart his motor to flee.

“I looked back and water was spilling in the boat … and I went in the water. It happened real fast,” Phelps testified. “I hollered, ‘Help!’ It was cold.”

Testimony at trial never pinpointed the location of the skiff. Phelps said he was near the channel but not in it. Spencer said he and his mate were looking out during the maneuver. They didn’t know Phelps and the skiff were there until they saw Phelps struggling in the water.

At trial, the lawyers and Marine Police officers discussed whether the Rules of the Road required Spencer to sound his horn periodically while turning out of the channel toward the dock. The police officers noted a rule requiring horn blasts when turning in an area where the pilot’s visibility is obstructed, but no one testified with certainty on whether the barge itself should be considered such an obstruction.

Phelps was unhurt in the accident.

Spencer lost his job as a result of the incident. “He no longer works for us,” said Skanska spokeswoman Jessica Murray. “We felt that his abilities were no longer needed.”

Murray said the company requires crews to enforce and discuss all safety policies before each job. She declined to say if any navigation practices would be modified as a result of the Albert Pike accident.

Spencer’s lawyers, noting potential Coast Guard action against his license, said they may appeal the misdemeanor conviction.

By Professional Mariner Staff