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Big Jake Accident: No Safe Alternative Route Planned For

Representation (not to scale) of Big Jake’s tow arrangement of the five barges and two work boats during the majority of the voyage to Hingham Bay, Massachusetts.
Representation (not to scale) of Big Jake’s tow arrangement of the five barges and two work boats during the majority of the voyage to Hingham Bay, Massachusetts.

By The Maritime Executive 01-12-2020 01:20:35

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has released a Marine Accident Brief about an accident that occurred on December 2, 2018, involving the towing vessel Big Jake, which was under way in Massachusetts Bay towing five barges and two workboats when the tow broke apart. As a result of the breakaway, the barge Dredge200 and the workboat R.E. Pierson 2 both sank. 

The NTSB determined that the probable cause of the accident was the decision by the tow captain and owner to attempt a transit in forecast wind and waves that exceeded their original plan for the voyage.

Big Jake and her tow departed over a month behind schedule on November 30 due to delays in obtaining equipment for and assembling and preparing to move the tow. The opportunity for a favorable weather window diminished with the onset of winter, which would have factored in the decision of the owner and captain to continue their transit despite an unfavorable weather forecast, states the NTSB report.

Big Jake’s crew stated that the Cape Cod Canal traffic controller delayed their transit through the canal which resulted in them getting caught in bad weather on the other side. However, it appears that that the agency followed their standard protocols and processes to ensure safe passage of vessels when assigning the transit time. According to the controller, they would typically restrict the canal to one-way traffic for a tow of this size/configuration. 

Additionally, when restricting to one-way traffic, they would time the passage to a fair tide to minimize the disruption to other canal traffic. Further, the captain and owner waited for hours for their opening in the canal and had ample time to evaluate the weather forecast for the rest of their voyage.

Although the captain and owner had a discussion regarding a plan for the tow configuration and set a limit of four-foot seas for the voyage, they proceeded through the canal and into Cape Cod Bay despite knowing that the weather forecast called for seas that exceeded the limits they established for the voyage. The pre-planning phase carried out by the captain, owner and customer proved to be ineffective. 

In particular, there were no safe harbors or alternate routes identified in case heavy weather should be forecast during the voyage. Once the captain and owner decided to continue their transit after departing the Cape Cod Canal, they had to travel about 43 miles (about eight hours at the transit average of four to five knots) through the relatively unprotected waters of Cape Cod Bay and Massachusetts Bay, with limited safe harbors should the forecast weather overwhelm the tow before their destination in Hingham.

The NTSB report is available here.