The tugboat that collided with the freighter A.V. Kastner and sank in the Elk River yesterday was part of a roughly 1,000-foot flotilla of dredging equipment that was slow and hard to maneuver in the narrow shipping channels leading to and from the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal.
Industry experts and ship pilots say such collisions are extremely rare, but it's possible for lengthy dredging rigs to drift in strong currents or maneuver off course in foggy conditions, which likely was the case at the time of the collision.
"It's not hard for something like that to happen up there because the channel is so narrow," said Allen Baker, a veteran tug captain who has towed dredging equipment through the C&D; Canal.
The cause of the collision is unclear, but those familiar with the incident say the 60-foot tugboat Swift and accompanying dredging equipment were not where the Kastner's pilot was expecting them based on radio contact.
The Kastner, a 520-foot bulk carrier that makes frequent trips to Baltimore, left the C&D; Canal about 6:38 a.m. and entered the Elk River, a 450-foot-wide channel with a depth of 35 feet. The ship was piloted by Capt. Timothy M. Cober, a 29-year veteran of the Association of Maryland Pilots.
Maryland bay pilots are charged with guiding cargo ships up the Chesapeake Bay and through shipping channels leading to the port of Baltimore. Tools of the trade include the bay pilot's satellite-guided global positioning equipment and the ship's own sophisticated radar. With the two systems, a pilot can tell a freighter's exact location.
Tugs are usually equipped with less sophisticated radar - and their captains' dead reckoning.
A spokesman for the bay pilots said Cober made radio contact with the captain of the tugboat Buchanan 14, leading the dredging caravan, prior to entering the Elk River. The two captains agreed to pass each other port-to-port, as cars pass on a two-way street.
Though narrow, the Elk River channel is considered plenty wide for two ships to pass - especially for the relatively small Kastner, which is just 75 feet wide.
As the Kastner left the C&D; Canal, Cober guided the ship along the Elk River channel's north side as arranged. Within six minutes, the freighter struck the tugs and dredging equipment, which were supposed to be following the opposite bank of the channel, a bay pilots' spokesman said.
"The Kastner was steady on the far right side of the channel and they collided on [that] side," said Capt. Eric Nielson, president of the bay pilots' association.
A spokesman for the Norfolk Dredging Co., which owns the Swift, said the company was investigating the incident and could not provide details of what happened.
Industry experts said it is likely the Kastner, traveling 8 to 9 knots, had little warning of the collision. The bulk freighter is equipped with a variable pitch propeller, which enables it to change direction or stop more quickly. With normal visibility, it's possible the Kastner could have stopped in time.