Improving navigational safety, tugboat maintenance and voyage planning will help prevent accidents, saving lives and costs
Tugboat safety is back in the spotlight as a new decade begins and a workboat collision in the US focuses regulators’ minds on preventing accidents reoccurring.
US Coast Guard (USCG) and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) are investigating how two tugs collided in the Lower Mississippi River in Louisiana on 26 January 2020.
Towing tug Cooperative Spirit struck pusher tug Creppel as it pushed two barges laden with sulphuric acid near Luling. This resulted in the loss of three crew members, release of acidic vapours and a temporary closure of the river.
By the final week of January, Mississippi River was re-opened, vapours had dissipated and the damaged barge was being salvaged, but questions over how this navigation error occurred are yet to be answered.
It will be many months until this accident report is published. In the meantime, tug owners can learn lessons from several NTSB accident reports published in Q4 2019. The latest was a report into the capsizing and sinking of Barge Dredge200 and loss of workboat RE Pierson 2 as they were pushed by tugboat Big Jake in December 2018.
This happened in Massachusetts Bay as Big Jake was pushing five barges and two workboats. The tow broke apart, which NTSB determined was probably caused by “the decision by the tow captain and owner to attempt a transit in forecasted wind and waves that exceeded their original plan for the voyage”.
There was no contingency plan of alternate routes or a safe harbour for encountering bad weather during the voyage. In reaction to this report, NTSB recommended tug operators develop voyage plans that assess prevailing weather conditions and anticipate changes along the intended route. Also, operators should identify safe harbours along their routes and adhere to operational limits.
In another recent report, NTSB commented on the collision of a tugboat and barge with a sailing vessel in Stamford Harbour, Connecticut. On 17 September 2018, tugboat Seeley, with a crew of five, was pushing two sand barges along the west branch of Stamford Harbour, when the lead barge struck the stern of the moored sailboat Sea Jay during a tripping manoeuvre. This caused about US$300,000 of damage to the sailboat.
NTSB identified the likely cause of the collision “was the Seeley mate’s decision to perform a tripping manoeuvre in a narrow channel near surrounding piers and docked vessels.” This was despite the availability of an appropriate turning basin only about a tow length ahead.
Accidents also occurred in inland waterways in 2018 with NTSB publishing reports on these in Q4 2019.
One of these reported how towing vessel Andrew Cargill MacMillan destroyed structures at a grain terminal near Tallulah, Louisiana, causing US$8M of damage. This was caused by contact of the tow with the river bottom because of the “pilot’s overreliance on floating aids to navigation” said NTSB. This “resulted in the tow being out of position and sliding too deep into the bend before the terminal to recover and successfully complete the turn”.
Also in December 2019, NTSB reported on the capsize of towboat Miss Roslyn on the Lower Mississippi River near Reserve, Louisiana, on 9 October 2018. This vessel began to flood, and three crew members abandoned the towboat onto a moored fleet barge and another vessel. This accident caused oil emissions and around US$1.13M of damage to the towboat.
NTSB determined the probable cause of Miss Roslyn’s capsize was “the company’s lack of effective hull inspection and maintenance programme, which resulted in flooding into a steering void through multiple wastage holes in the hull”.
Owners can avoid accidents by improving maintenance, seafarer training and navigation procedures for coastal and waterway towage.