Apprentice steersman being trained when tow hit moored barges

A towboat pushing six barges down the Lower Mississippi River struck moored barges at a shipyard near Sunshine, La., causing 11 empty shipyard barges to break free. An apprentice steersman had turned over the helm just before impact.

The incident happened at about 1020 on March 7, 2019, at mile 208.5 as the towboat Leviticus prepared to meet an upbound tanker. Chem Carriers’ Plaquemine Point Shipyard used the 11 barges for vessel cleaning and repair work. Ten shipyard workers suffered minor injuries. 

National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators said the head of Leviticus’ tow became mired in an eddy in a challenging bend at Plaquemine Point. The agency said a trainee steering the tow lost control as it approached the shipyard. 

The captain’s decision to allow the trainee to navigate the challenging section of river while it was in major flood stage was the primary cause of the incident, the NTSB said. 

“The captain did not realize the tow was caught in an eddy and headed toward Plaquemine Point Shipyard until less than a minute before the accident,” the agency said in its report, noting that by then it was too late to avoid the impact. 

The captain, four days into a 28-day rotation, tested positive for marijuana metabolites during a post-accident screening. Vessel owner Kirby Inland Marine immediately fired him and the Coast Guard revoked his license. A Kirby spokesman did not respond to an inquiry about the incident or the NTSB findings.

The 4,600-hp Leviticus had a tow loaded with crude oil in a two-wide, three-deep configuration on the morning of the accident. The captain, who the NTSB did not identify, had 25 years of maritime experience. He had trained 10 steersmen for Kirby during the previous seven years. The trainee steersman at the helm during the incident was a 2017 graduate from a maritime academy. 

The captain and trainee started their six-hour morning watch at 0500. The river gauge at Baton Rouge, about 20 miles upriver, showed 43.4 feet. The river currents averaged 4.1 mph, with some areas reaching 8.7 mph. 

The trainee had the controls when the tow approached a series of sharp bends starting near mile 225. According to the NTSB, the tow became caught in an eddy at Manchac Point, located at mile 215 just upriver from Plaquemine Point, and the captain had to intervene.

Leviticus’ captain and its pilot, who had 40 years of experience, were in the wheelhouse as the tow approached Plaquemine Point. Based on their guidance, the steersman arranged over radio for a starboard-to-starboard meeting with the upbound tanker Atalanta T. A pilot from the New Orleans-Baton Rouge Steamship Pilots Association (NOBRA) controlled the ship at the time. 

The towboat’s captain and pilot warned the steersman about the challenging currents and eddy at Plaquemine Point. They also advised the steersman to avoid those currents by staying closer to the point. The steersman spoke with the NOBRA pilot again over radio to confirm meeting arrangements as he navigated the bend. 

A photo from the NTSB report shows the trackline of the tow in the 20 minutes preceding the accident at Plaquemine Point Shipyard, based on the towboat’s AIS data.

NTSB photo

Leviticus’ pilot noticed the tow sliding into the bend, away from the preferred path closer to the point. The captain issued a series of rudder and throttle orders to get the tow under control ahead of the Atalanta T meeting. Aboard the tanker, the NOBRA pilot radioed, “Hey Leviticus, let me know when you got your slide in check and I’ll come ahead.”

The steersman on Leviticus, still manning the controls, asked the captain, “What do you want me to do?” The captain replied, “I don’t know,” and then took the controls from the steersman, the NTSB said.

The trainee told investigators he believed the head of the tow was caught in an eddy as it rounded the bend — details he did not share with the captain or pilot. 

Leviticus’ port lead barge, Kirby 27781, struck a moored barge at an upper section of Plaquemine Point Shipyard at 1020, causing the barge and five others to break free. The Leviticus tow then pushed the barges 230 yards downriver to a lower section of the shipyard used for vessel repairs. The tow hit barges at the lower shipyard at 1021 and five more broke away. Two of the barges hit an anchor buoy at the Banta Mile 208 fleet just downriver. The fleet’s assist tugs rounded up the drifting barges. 

Twenty-seven shipyard workers who were on the barges escaped before impact, but 10 reported injuries requiring first aid, the NTSB said. Leviticus did not sound its alarm as it approached the shipyard.

The captain described the trainee as “a natural” who showed real promise, yet he also acknowledged the trainee had difficulty navigating the bend just upriver from Plaquemine Point. The captain felt removing the trainee from the controls after that hang-up might hurt his confidence, the report said. But the captain later told investigators he should have helmed the transit around Plaquemine Point.

With the shipyard on the left bank and Atalanta T approaching along the right bank, there was little room for error in the 3- to 6-mph current around Plaquemine Point.

“(The captain) intended the steersman ‘to skirt’ the edge of the eddy he anticipated just upriver from Plaquemine Point on the left descending bank, with about half of a barge width in the eddy,” the report said. “When the captain relieved the steersman at the helm station, however, he realized the head of the tow was not coming out of the eddy. He described the eddy as being lower, farther out from the bank, and stronger than he expected.”

Leviticus’ eight-person crew was tested for drugs and alcohol at about 1300 on the day of the accident. All tested negative except for the captain, whose drug screening showed 27 nanograms per milliliter of marijuana metabolites (THCA), nearly twice the level allowed.

The NTSB report said inactive metabolites can show up in urine for days or weeks after the last use of the drug. It said the positive test did not necessarily reflect recent marijuana consumption. 

Damage to the Plaquemine Point Shipyard barges ranged from a 20-by-12-foot hole to dents in the hulls. In addition, anchors were lost. Total shipyard damage was estimated at $520,000. The yard was closed and reopened five months later after high-water conditions subsided.

The lead barges of the Leviticus tow sustained $19,500 in damage that consisted of a small hull penetration, scrapes and damage to a winch. The NTSB said the cargo tanks in the double-hulled barges were not penetrated, and no pollution occurred.

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