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Pilot Fatigue Cited in Bulk Carrier Incident

Trackline of the Shandong Fu En from 0620 to 0639, showing the vessel’s heading and course over ground. (Map data by Google Maps)
Trackline of the Shandong Fu En from 0620 to 0639, showing the vessel’s heading and course over ground. (Map data by Google Maps)

By The Maritime Executive 2019-06-29 22:16:54

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has released a Marine Accident Brief about an incident that occurred on April 6, 2018, involving the bulk carrier Shandong Fu En

The vessel struck Dock 1 of the Ergon-St. James Terminal wharf on the Lower Mississippi River during high-water conditions while turning around to head downriver with the assistance of three tugboats. The Shandong Fu En, loaded with coal, had just departed the Convent Marine Terminal wharf, located across the river. No pollution or injuries were reported, but the vessel and the wharf sustained $6.25 million in damage.

The NTSB determined that the probable cause of the contact was the fatigued pilot’s misjudgment of a downstream turning maneuver during high-water conditions.

No mechanical issues were reported with the tugboats that would have limited the pilot’s use of these assets to safely turn the vessel around in the waterway, nor were issues reported with the bulker’s steering or engines. 

According to the three towboat captains who assisted the Shandong Fu En, three assist tugboats, or maybe even four, were the usual number necessary in high-water conditions to safely move a vessel such as the Shandong Fu En off the dock and turn it around. However, after the bulk carrier came off the dock, the river current quickly began to move the vessel toward the right descending bank and downriver. 

The towboats could have been positioned differently, and the full-astern engine orders could have been executed earlier to keep the bulk carrier from drifting. The pilot had completed this maneuver dozens of times previously and was familiar with the challenges of the river being at high-water and running at more than five miles per hour.

Despite the pilot’s 96-hour work/rest history showing he complied with regulations, he had only four hours of sleep in the 36-hour time span before the accident. The pilot’s limited sleep and the fact that he was nearing the end of an eight-hour shift increased the likelihood that fatigue affected his judgment.

The NTSB notes that even for experienced pilots, fatigue can affect performance in various ways, such as increased reaction times, reduced alertness and difficulty processing information. It can, therefore,
degrade a person’s ability to stay alert and attentive to the demands of safely controlling a vessel.

The report is available here.