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USCG Cites Failure to Maintain Lookout in Cutter's Fatal Collision

USCG cutter collision investigation
Cutter Winslow Griesser hit a fishing boat while operating at 28 knots killing one person (USCG file photo)

Published Jul 7, 2023 9:07 PM by The Maritime Executive

The U.S. Coast Guard is out with its report on a fatal 2022 accident in which one of its fast response cutters ran over a small pleasure boat killing one person and injuring the other person aboard. While on the face of it, the inquiry determines that the mishap was caused because neither the cutter nor the pleasure boat saw the other, they also find a series of contributing factors. While the primary blame is on the pleasure craft, the commanding officer of the cutter was nonetheless also reassigned due to a loss of confidence in his ability to effectively command the vessel.

The incident, which is described as a mishap, resulted in a major incident investigation in part because of the loss of life of one civilian. The investigation sought to identify the circumstances surrounding the incident which took place on August 8, 2022, a few miles off the coast of Puerto Rico. The CGC Winslow Griesser, a 154-foot Sentinel Class Fast Response Cutter commissioned in 2015, hit a 23-foot pleasure craft also operating out of San Juan.

The investigation reports that the pleasure craft with two people set off on the morning of August 8 for recreational fishing. It was operating approximately 4.5 miles north of Dorado, Puerto Rico. The weather service had advised small craft to exercise caution but overall, the USCG investigators report it was a clear, sunny day. East winds were 15 to 20 knots and seas were 4 to 6 feet with light swells.

The Winslow Griesser departed its base at 13:35 proceeding west to embark shipriders from the Dominican Navy. Approximately half an hour after departing, the Winslow Griesser was approximately four nautical miles north of Dorado when it hit the pleasure craft breaking the boat in two. Two people were recovered from the water with one being unconscious and later pronounced deceased. The other had minor injuries.

An inspection of the cutter showed marks on both sides of the bow below the waterline. The forward section of the pleasure craft later washed ashore and investigators said it appears it was hit at a 90-degree angle. The stern portion was never recovered and likely sunk near the collision side.

The report concludes that neither vessel was likely maintaining a proper lookout. They point out that the operator of the pleasure craft was distracted while tending to fishing lines and talking with the other person. The pleasure boat was operating at about 5 knots and based on the rules of the road in a crossing situation had the responsibility to take actions to keep clear and avoid the risk of collision with the cutter. 

The investigation was complicated by the fact that on the advice of legal counsel the Commanding Officer, Officer of the Deck Underway, and the Quartermaster of the Watch, all declined to answer questions. The report however calls into question if they were maintaining a proper watch and while the speed of 28 knots was normal operating procedure, they question if the vessel was traveling at an excessive speed increasing danger based on the circumstances.

Extenuating factors also included the design of the cutter’s bridge windows which cause a blind spot that hinders view requiring the OOD to move about or to have an additional lookout. Further, the size and path of the pleasure craft meant it would dip below the swell height, while the sea condition, path, speed, and color of the pleasure boat reduced its visibility to both the human eye and the electronic signature required by the cutter’s radar system.

Captain Timothy Hammond who was president of the Major Incident Investigation Board concludes in the report that neither vessel violated the tenets of safe speed. The report assumes that both vessels failed to maintain a lookout resulting in them not seeing each other.

The commanding officer of the Winslow Griesser was permanently relieved of his duties as commander of the cutter on May 9, 2023, with the USCG citing a loss of confidence in his ability to effectively command the cutter. He was reassigned to a duty station in Washington state.

The National Transportation Safety Board, with the cooperation of the Coast Guard, also convened an independent investigation into the collision to determine the cause of the accident and make recommendations to avoid similar incidents in the future.