NTSB Releases Report On 2021 Tanker Allision With New Orleans Water Intake Fender

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recently released its report into the March 16, 2021, allision between the tanker Bow Tribute and a fendering system protecting two intakes for New Orleans’ freshwater supply. The Bow Tribute was downbound on the Lower Mississippi River when it veered toward the left descending bank near Mile 104 and struck the fendering system.

No pollution was reported, and there were no injuries associated with the impact. The allision caused an estimated $986,400 in damages to the ship and $926,100 in damages to the fender system.

At the time of the incident, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Carrollton gage was at 12.4 feet and rising, part of a brief high-water period last year. The river was moving at about 3.5 knots, and winds from the south-southwest were blowing at 15 knots, with gusts near 24 knots.

The Bow Tribute had discharged cargo in Baton Rouge and was en route to the Alliance Anchorage near Mile 65 to take on gasoline. At the time of the incident, a pilot with the New Orleans-Baton Rouge Steamship Pilots Association (NOBRA) was on board, along with a vessel crew of 27 and a tugboat captain who knew and was observing the NOBRA pilot.

As the Bow Tribute neared New Orleans, the ship approached the mv. American Way, which was downbound pushing a pair of empty hopper barges. At about 3:02 p.m., the NOBRA pilot radioed the American Way to coordinate a passing. 

“It looks like we’re gonna meet,” the pilot said, according to the NTSB report. “Overtake you at Nine Mile [Point].”

The pilot asked if the American Way could either speed up or slow down.

“We can speed up a bit,” the American Way’s wheelman replied.

Several minutes later, the American Way’s pilot radioed the NOBRA pilot to ask which side he wanted to pass on.

“I can overtake you on the two, if that’s all right with you,” the NOBRA pilot said, indicating the towing vessel’s starboard side.

By 3:11 p.m., the NOBRA pilot indicated the American Way needed to slow down. At 3:15 p.m., the Bow Tribute passed under the Huey P. Long Bridge going 14.9 knots. The American Way, which was traveling at 7.8 knots, was 0.7 miles ahead.

As the American Way and Bow Tribute approached Nine Mile Point, another bulk ship, the Red Cosmos, was approaching the point upbound. As the American Way rounded the bend, the tow began sliding toward the left descending bank. The Bow Tribute was only 0.15 miles astern and, with a forward speed of 15.1 knots, was going almost twice as fast as the American Way.

With the towing vessel continuing to slide toward the bank and in the likely path of the tanker, the NOBRA pilot asked the second officer to ready the ship’s anchors.

At 3:20 p.m., the NOBRA pilot again radioed the American Way: “You gotta drive on that thing, man.” The NTSB report noted that “there was no reply and no further communications from the American Way.” On board the towing vessel, the pilot had called the captain, who came up to the wheelhouse and took control, attempting to steer the American Way toward the center of the channel.

Thirty seconds later, with the American Way only 130 feet off the bow of the Bow Tribute, the NOBRA pilot “issued a series of helm orders to port and midship, followed by multiple soundings of the ship’s whistle. He announced over the radio that the tanker was ‘colliding at Nine Mile’ and requested harbor tug assistance. The pilot then gave various rudder orders and then ordered the engine to full astern to maneuver the Bow Tribute clear of the American Way,” according to the NTSB report.

At 3:21 p.m. and 45 seconds, cameras on shore caught the Bow Tribute’s stern “momentarily interacting with the bank (grounding) and its stern rising out of the water while the vessel was traveling about 10.3 knots,” according to the report.

“The NOBRA pilot on the Bow Tribute, not wanting to collide with the American Way, told investigators that he kept the vessel near the shoreline because he could no longer see the American Way under the Bow Tribute’s starboard bow,” the report stated.

A few seconds later, the port side of the Bow Tribute struck a spud barge moored at mile 104.1. The barge was part of the fendering system for the Sewerage & Water Board of New Orleans’ New River water intake. The barge broke free and began floating downstream. At 3:22 p.m. and 38 seconds, the pilot ordered the starboard anchor released. Several minutes later, with the starboard anchor still paying out, the Bow Tribute struck another spud barge, this one at the Oak Street intake.

After the incident, the NOBRA pilot stated that it was not unusual to overtake vessels in the Carrollton Bend and that, since the American Way was pushing two empty barges and had a Z-drive propulsion system, the towboat could “drive out of anything.” However, NTSB investigators concluded that, based on the pilot’s statement “I don’t like to do this, but we got to,” overtaking the towboat in the bend was not his preferred maneuver.

NTSB investigators also noted that, “in the 90 seconds preceding the near-miss collision, the pilot of the American Way did not communicate at all over the radio, either to the Bow Tribute or surrounding vessels.” The report also noted the poor communications regarding passing the American Way on its starboard side and the NOBRA pilot’s decision to veer toward the bank.

The NTSB concluded that the probable cause of the grounding and allision “was the pilot’s decision to overtake a tow in a large river bend occupied by multiple vessels during high-river conditions with a strong following current.” Ineffective communication “regarding where the overtaking maneuver would occur” likely contributed as well.