River Dance: Grounding Launches Runaway Barges, Coast Guard Investigation

By Randy O’Neill

It has been said that the vast majorities of collisions at sea occur in near perfect weather conditions. That trend can also be applied to the inland river system. Not too long ago, it was a beautiful mid-summer afternoon in the nation’s heartland. The skies were clear, the sun was shining and the variable southwest breeze barely caused a ripple on the muddy water of the winding river. Hopeful fishermen lined the riverbanks and a few recreational boats were cruising close to the floating docks lining both shores. This tranquil scene on this busy waterway was about to change … and quickly.

A Parting of the Ways
About a half mile upriver, a tug was proceeding southbound on a slow bell with two barges made up end-to-end along her starboard side. The slow moving tow was proceeding at a speed of 3-4 knots with the tide beginning to flood and a faint southwest wind. Suddenly, the wind unexpectedly turned gusty and, combined with the tide, it pushed the tow to port and out of the navigable channel where the 95’ tugboat grounded in the soft, muddy river bottom. At the same time, the two barges broke loose.
Carried by their forward momentum, the two light sand scows which were being hip-towed end–to-end made up with soft lines with rakes facing out started their demolition derby-like rampage down river. The first victims of the lead barge were a cabin cruiser and small sailboat tied up to a floating dock on the river’s western bank. The barge sideswiped both boats, squeezing them with a crunching sound against the floating dock.
The impact slowed the barge tandem, causing the trailing barge to pivot, swing out past the lead barge and break away from its tow mate. Being pushed by the downriver current, the barge, which was now perpendicular to the riverbank, drifted to the other side of the channel and continued its trek downriver. The former lead barge, slowed by its allision with the docked boats, traveled another fifty yards before grounding itself in the shallow water on the river’s western bank.
Meanwhile, the bucolic scene of only minutes before downriver changed very rapidly as fishermen on both river banks watched in disbelief as the still free-floating second barge took dead aim for a railroad bridge. Less than a minute later, the barge struck the eastern support columns of the bridge where it became pinned underneath the structure and held there by the current. Not being sure what, if any, damage the barge/bridge allision had caused, railroad authorities immediately closed the bridge to rail traffic. While this chaotic scene was playing out less than a mile downriver, the tugboat’s master was frantically trying to free his vessel from the mud while instructing a deckhand to contact the Coast Guard on his cell phone to alert it of his situation.

Messy Aftermath, Close Scrutiny
Soon thereafter, the captain finally freed his vessel from the bottom’s grip, investigators arrived on the scene having already been notified by witnesses along both sides of the river. Simultaneously, under Coast Guard supervision, the barge wedged under the bridge was freed on the next ebb tide and eventually reunited with its  sister barge which by then had been pulled out of the mud. Both were then moved to their originally intended berth a couple of miles downriver.
Back on the tug, the captain contacted his company to report the incident and then promptly reported the claim to his longtime license insurer. Within minutes, a local maritime attorney had been assigned by his insurer and was speaking to the somewhat shaken tug master on his cell phone preparing him for his initial interview with investigators from the Coast Guard. Before all involved mariners involved in the incident were sent for drug and alcohol testing and after a brief interview while still on board the tug, the master was instructed to complete and submit a 2692 Marine Casualty Report and be prepared to report for a formal interview regarding the incident.
All of this communication was shared with his attorney who instructed his client to contact him as soon as he was given an interview date and time so he could accompany him to the Coast Guard interview. While, thankfully, the railroad bridge was determined to be structurally sound and was reopened to rail traffic  about six hours after the incident, the cabin cruiser, sailboat and floating dock did not fare as well, introducing the strong likelihood of civil suits being filed against the tug captain. That likelihood became a reality less than two weeks later.

A Dual Threat
Faced with negligence charges from the U.S. Coast Guard following his interview and civil suits from the boat and dock owners, the captain’s attorney was able to reach an agreement with the Coast Guard to settle the case with a 90-day license suspension, of which 30 days had to be served immediately, followed by a 60-day probationary period in which the master could continue to work on his license but would have to serve the balance of his 90-day suspension if he had another chargeable incident while on probation. The civil suits, which are still pending, are being handled by the same maritime attorney who negotiated the reduced sanction with the Coast Guard.
So what began as a lazy sun-drenched day on the river quickly deteriorated into a harrowing and potentially career-threatening afternoon for the veteran tug captain because what was, arguably, a brief moment of inattention and the whims of Mother Nature. And, while the civil suits must still be dealt with, the license and civil defense policy that the master had purchased years earlier but never had to use, enabled him to continue his professional career. Six months later he had successfully met the terms of his probation and was close to settling the civil suits.
This was a sobering incident that produced a gut-wrenching seven months to follow. With the help of his attorney, the ordeal will eventually fade to memory. The lessons learned – how to avoid such a problem in the future and the ongoing need for license protection – endure forever.  

Randy O’Neill is Senior Vice President with Lancer Insurance Company and has been Manager of its MOPS Marine License Insurance division since 1984. Over the past 29 years, Mr. O’Neill has spoken and written on many occasions on the importance of USCG license protection. He is a regular contributor to MarineNews magazine.
He can be reached at: roneill@lancerinsurance.com

(As published in the April 2015 edition of Marine News - http://magazines.marinelink.com/Magazines/MaritimeNews)


Marine News Magazine, page 18,  Apr 2015

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