Coast Guard investigators say pilot error probably caused the Bay Titan to capsize in the Delaware River on Friday, causing the death of one crew member and blocking shipping traffic in the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal for up to a week.
Officials also are investigating whether the oceangoing tugboat was suited for the job of towing the Domino Sugar barge involved in the accident. Though mariners familiar with the incident say the tug had plenty of horsepower and had performed the task before, the barge is normally pushed by a larger vessel equipped with an upper wheelhouse from which the pilot has better visibility during tight maneuvers.
"That could very well be a possibility," said Lt. Cmdr. David J. Ford, the senior Coast Guard investigator. "But there are no requirements ... to have a certain amount of horsepower or size to tow a certain barge."
When Domino Sugar Corp. officials introduced their new $10 million sugar barge at a ceremony in Baltimore in October, they also made note of the 3,600-horsepower tugboat that would push the vessel on its regular trips to the company's Brooklyn, N.Y., refinery.
The Express Explorer, a tug owned and operated by Express Marine Inc. of Camden, N.J., is uniquely suited for the barge, in part because of an upper wheelhouse that sits 48 feet above the water. The extra height makes it easier for the captain of the tug to see beyond the 370-foot barge, christened the Domino Sugar, while it's pushing from the comfort of a specially designed notch in the stern.
But with the Express Explorer in dry dock for a monthlong overhaul, Express Marine officials contracted the Bay Titan to accompany the Domino Sugar to Baltimore last week when the barge was carrying 835,000 gallons of liquid sugar.
With concerns about visibility from behind the tug, the captain of the Bay Titan opted to pull, rather than push, the barge through the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal on Friday, a decision that ultimately led to the capsizing of the tugboat and the loss of one crew member.
"It's just like driving your car down the road. You're going to have an accident someday possibly," said Ray Robbins, president of operations for Bay Towing Corp., the Norfolk, Va., company that owns the Bay Titan. "It's a shame and all, but it's a part of life. It's a part of the business."
Though it's fairly routine for tugs to tow - rather than push - barges into the canal from the Delaware River, Coast Guard investigators said Capt. Jack Carver probably made "judgment errors" as he piloted the Bay Titan toward the entrance of the C&D; Canal.
Ford said Carver, who has transited the canal 30 times, also reported that the Bay Titan is a smaller tug than the one he is used to piloting.
Preliminary findings suggest that the tug sank within minutes of being overtaken by the barge it was towing. Carver reported to Coast Guard officials that the barge was riding erratically as he made the turn into the canal. As he reached the entrance, the barge began to pass the tug on the right side, ultimately pulling the towline taut and then capsizing the tug. In maritime parlance, it's called "tripping your tow."
Robbins said Friday was not the first time the Bay Titan was used to tow the Domino Sugar, a 2.5-million-gallon barge used for hauling liquid sugar.
Bay Towing is standing by its captain during the Coast Guard investigation, which could lead to a warning, license suspension or other sanctions against Carver. Robbins described Carver, 26, as an educated and well-respected tugboat pilot who helped four crew members escape from the vessel as it went down.
"He saved a lot of his crew members by physical strength and going down into the elements," Robbins said. "He could have jumped off, but he went down there and saved his men."
Steve Pollert, 45, of Suffolk, Va., was apparently trapped inside the tug and is presumed dead.
Mariners familiar with the Bay Titan said the tug had plenty of power to handle the Domino Sugar. And it is not uncommon for barges carrying everything from cargo containers to bulk commodities to be towed into the C&D; Canal from the front, as the sugar barge was Friday.
"Towing in there and towing out of there is not something that is that difficult, especially if it's good weather," said Jim Demske, port captain for Vane Bros. Co., a Baltimore towing company that takes barges through the canal.
A 15-member salvage crew is expected to arrive on the scene today and begin attaching slings to the sunken tug in hopes of lifting it off the bottom and towing it to Reedy Island anchorage, south of the entrance to the C&D; Canal. Once there, diving crews will try to find the missing crew mem- ber before trying to overturn the tug and raise it to the surface.
The canal remains closed to cargo traffic, forcing some ship operators to make the longer trip up the Chesapeake Bay on their way to the port of Baltimore. The voyage can add up to 10 hours and tens of thousands of dollars to the cost of a typical journey.
A spokesman for the Maryland Pilots Association said an average of three cargo ships transit the canal each day, though the number varies significantly from week to week. Because shippers often decide on the fly what route to take, there were no accurate estimates on how many ships have been diverted because of the accident.
"Most of our ships that transit from Baltimore to New York use the C&D; Canal," said Tom Witkowski, operations manager for Hual North America Inc., a shipping line that carries autos and other cargo from the port of Baltimore. "In that case we would have to go completely around."
Wallenius Wilhelmsen, another car carrier and one of the port of Baltimore's largest customers, also has had to divert ships, but it was uncertain yesterday how many were affected.