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Lack of Pilot Experience Led to Fatal Capsizing

Natalie Jean

By The Maritime Executive 2019-06-13 22:39:28

A towboat company’s decision to place an inadequately vetted pilot on board a towing vessel on which he did not have previous experience, led to an accident that killed two mariners, according to a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report.

The report (Marine Accident Brief 19/13) details the NTSB’s investigation of the March 12, 2018, capsizing and sinking of the towing vessel Natalie Jean at mile 90.5 of the Lower Mississippi River, near New Orleans.

In its report the NTSB says Creole Chief, Inc., of New Orleans, the owner/operator of the Natalie Jean, failed to comply with several of its own requirements including pre-employment hiring procedures that include verifying the captain’s training and credentialing as well as ensuring the pilot was thoroughly familiarized with the vessel prior to operating it unsupervised. 

The owner placed the pilot on board the Natalie Jean even though he had no direct experience with the pilot’s ability. While the pilot had years of towing vessel experience on the Mississippi River, he had not worked for eight months. Neither the owner nor the captain was able to assess the pilot’s ability to judge specific operational situations given the limited underway time before the accident.

At the time of the accident the Lower Mississippi River gauge at mile 102 measure 16.5 feet and the current was estimated at five miles per hour. Winds were from the north at 10-15 knots, with gusts of 20-26 knots. The Natalie Jean was pushing an empty fuel tank barge upriver when the towboat became caught on the port anchor chain of the anchored bulk carrier Atlantic Fairy. The towboat capsized and quickly sank. The barge broke free and collided with the Atlantic Fairy. The Natalie Jean’s captain and deckhand died in the accident.

The NTSB also says the pilot’s decision to transit upriver in the general anchorage, given his unfamiliarity with the vessel and close proximity to anchored and underway vessels in high-water conditions and strong winds, increased the navigational challenges leading up to the accident. The report states the pilot’s lack of vessel knowledge and experience, coupled with high water, strong beam winds and a vessel that was only making one to two miles per hour in a strong five miles per hour current, while pushing a barge upriver through a busy anchorage, placed him in a very challenging situation.

The report is available here.