At 0500 on March12th 2016 the tug Specialist collided with a construction barge and sank almost immediately with the loss of three lives. The accident was investigated by the American National Transportation Safety Board and their report was published on May 11th 2017.

The Specialist being recovered - all photographs from the NTSB report

THE VESSELS INVOLVED.

The Specialist was a 1956 built 1700 bhp tug, 84 ft (25.6m) long; it was 131 GRT, based at Staten Island. It was powered by a single Cummins diesel and was crewed by four men. The captain was certificated as a master of towing vessels and vessels of less than 3000 GRT; the mate held credentials as master of towing vessels on near coastal waters and master of steam or motor vessels of not more than 200 GRT (domestic tonnage) and 500 GT (ITC tonnage) on near coastal waters One of the deckhands had credentials as master of self-propelled vessels of less than 100 GRT on near coastal waters and mate of vessels of less than 200 grt on near coastal waters. The other deckhand had credentials as AB (To those unfamiliar, the complexity of US marine qualifications are mind boggling).

The Realist was another tug owned by New York Marine Towing, it had two engines and screws with a combined power of 1800 bhp also based at Staten Island. It was built in 1963 by Bollinger; it was 193 GRT and was 84.5 ft long. It was crewed by a captain and a deckhand, on the night of 8th March there was a female passenger on board. Of the two crew members, the captain was qualified as master of steam of motor vessels of not more than 100 GRT (domestic tonnage) upon near coastal waters.

The Trevor was a twin screw 1500 bhp tug built in 1978, 69 ft long. It was powered by two Cats. At the time of the accident it had four crewmembers on board. It was based at the Weeks Marine Greenville Yard in Jersey City.

The Weeks 533 was a 297 ft long and 90 ft wide barge, owned by Weeks Marine Inc. It carried a Clyde Iron Works 52-DE crane rated for 500 tons, and at the time it was the largest crane available on the US east coast. According to the report the draught was 22 ft, although the draught recorded by the Specialist was about 7 ft. The boom of the crane was 210 ft and the actual weight of the crane was about 600 tons.

PREAMBLE

The Specialist was tasked with the operation of towing the Weeks 533 from the Weeks Yard at Jersey City to Albany where, one assumes although it is not mentioned in the report, it was contracted to carry out a, or some, lifts. The tug and barge left the yard at 0045 on 9th March and arrived at Albany at 0740 on 10th.

For those unfamiliar with the Hudson River, this was a tow of about 140 miles up river, during which they would have passed through a narrower section of the stream where the new Tappan Zee Bridge at Tarrytown north of New York was being constructed. This construction left a 600 foot wide navigable channel, marked with red lights at the edges, and green lights at the centre on the existing bridge. On the west side of the channel where pier 31 was being constructed a barge, N181, was “spudded in” to the waterway. This was a technique used to secure construction barges, effectively piling them into the seabed. The N181 was a tower crane barge and was not positioned as the diagram in the USCG Notice to Mariners indicated, but nevertheless was some 60 ft outside the navigable channel which was 600 ft wide. In any case the tug and barge has passed through the channel on the way up river, and had arrived at Albany at 0740 on March 10th.

THE SEQUENCE OF EVENTS

March 10th 2016

1325. The Specialist towing the crane barge departs Albany.

2150. The weather closes in and the tug turns around a number of times, holding position and waiting for an improvement in visibility.

March 11th 2016

0430. The visibility improves and the tug and tow continue down river.

0730. Wind speed increased with gusts up to 35 knots. The barge passes the tug and apparently contacts railway tracks on the shoreline.

0810. The Specialist is spun round by the barge and requires considerable power to hold station. (At this time there must have been a discussion between the tug and the company because it appears that a telephone conversation took place between the Realist and a representative of the company, who wanted the captain to get into his car and relieve the captain of the Specialist.) Instead it was agreed that the tug would go up river to assist.

0900. The Realist departs Staten Island.

1035. The Weeks Marine tug Trevor departs Jersey City after taking on fuel (Also one assumes on instructions from somebody).

1200. The Specialist resumes its passage down river.

1400. The tug and tow turn around once again to await the arrival of the Realist. (The communications taking place are not mentioned in the report but there must have been some.)

1720. The Realist arrives and is secured to the barge at the stern.

1800. The Specialist changes position and ties up to the starboard quarter of the barge, and one assumes, the voyage downriver continues.

2000. The Trevor arrives and is tied up to the port quarter of the barge, and the Realist is designated as lead tug.

March 12th 2016

0030 approx. The captain of the Specialist leaves his vessel and takes over the helm of the Realist in the upper wheelhouse. At this time the current in the river is variously estimated to be between 1.2 knots and 3.5 knots.

0500. The Weeks 533 and its tugs are proceeding down river at 8 knots, and are approaching the new bridge construction site. The mate of the Specialist initially indicates that they will pass through the area safely, but then changes his mind and is recorded as saying “it’s looking tight, go left” and then “go hard left”. And witnesses have stated that the barge was approaching the N181 at an angle. The flotilla seems to have been propelled onwards by the current and the starboard side of the Specialist hits the forward starboard corner of the N181 and is opened up, and the current begins to push the tug under water. It sinks rapidly with the mate and the two deckhands aboard. The mate is swept downriver, and is rescued, but cannot be revived. Both the deckhands are also lost.

THE INVESTIGATION.

The investigators were unable to question any crew members of the Realist, or the captain of the Specialist, since they feared prosecution and the owner of the company left the country. They were unable to get any bollard pull details for the Specialist and could ascertain that there was no written tow plan. The tug had been inspected two years before the accident and the Coast Guard had identified 18 deficiencies, but it had not been re-inspected.

The investigators reviewed the operations manual for the company, which contained a deal of pertinent guidance, including a transit procedure which required the officer responsible for the transit to determine the state of the tide, the direction and strength of the current…and the need to adjust the speed of the vessel and tow to ensure a safe transit under any bridges.

Although the investigators did not have the opportunity of interviewing the surviving crew members from the Specialist and the Realist there was a written statement from the deckhand of the Realist available which stated that while the Specialist captain was at the helm he had seen the Realist captain in the engine room, and that at that point he had been awake for approximately 24 hours. They also had access to a number of messages from the Specialist’s deckhand to his girlfriend, mostly expressing concern with the manner in which the tow was being carried out. They also interviewed the daughter of the Specialist’s mate who was similarly qualified and she indicated that the whole of the crew had been awake while the difficulties with the weather and the tow had been experienced. These various interviews suggested that none of the tugs’ crew members had had more than four to five hours uninterrupted sleep for the previous three days.

In the event the investigators determined that the probable cause of the collision and sinking of the Specialist was “inadequate manning, resulting in fatigued crewmembers navigating three tugboats with obstructed visibility due to the size of the crane on the barge they were towing and the location of the tugboats alongside the barge”.

COMMENT

Although doubtless fatigue had something to do with this unfortunate accident, there still seem to be a lot of questions which, despite the lack of information from the men on the other tug, and the lack of the owner, could have been answered.

There is not the slightest doubt that all the crews must have been pretty tired by the time they arrived at the bridge, but by then they were quite close to home, which might have answered one of the other questions as to why they were approaching the construction site too fast, this despite that fact that no-one could see what they were doing. And if we look at the configuration of the tugs, how could they have slowed the tow down and still remained in control? The answer is only with considerable skill and co-ordination.

This raises yet another question. The Specialist logged the draught of the barge as 7 ft but the vessel particulars identified it as 22 ft. Did they really mean 22 ft or is this the depth of the barge, deck to keel? And so if this was the depth of the barge one assumes that the depth of the Specialist was probably 9 ft. Where am I going with this, and what does it matter? If the draught of the barge was more or less the same or greater than the draught of the tugs their ability to influence the course of the tow, at any speed, would be limited since in some directions the water flow from the screws would be blocked by the presence of the barge. We won’t go too deeply into this but just give it some thought. The easiest way of achieving stability and steerage would have been to have one tug ahead on the tow wire and one astern similarly attached. Why did they not do that? Maybe they attached themselves directly to the barge to allow the captain of the Specialist to get to the Realist, ignoring the limitations of the configuration.

And then we get to the assignment of the vessel themselves. If Weeks had a twin screw tug of their own, why did they not use it? It had two propellers and was 22 years newer than the Specialist. The Realist was also a twin screw vessel a few years newer than the Specialist, but it might not have been used because it only had two crew on board. We can assume that the Specialist was assigned to the task and the departure time set was in order to arrive first thing in the morning on 10th at Albany, but to me it seems ridiculous to send out a sixty year old tug, particularly one which had failed to pass a Coast Guard inspection, on any mission at all. And finally why had the Coast Guard not re-inspected it.

Again, not having the knowledge of the Huson River and its tug fleet, although I do have some experience of barge towing, it would be interesting to know what sort of work the Specialist usually did. Was it usually occupied just shuffling barges around New Jersey, or was the sort of river transit undertaken with the Weeks 533 familiar to it, and if the latter why was the deckhand concerned about the manner in which to tow was being conducted? It is unlikely that we’ll ever know, but we can take away from the event that anyone engaged in towing anything should have a plan.

 
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