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Drunk tug skipper abandons helm

Jan 1, 2003

Passing a tugboat with a barge in tow is often a difficult maneuver,particularly in a narrow channel. But if the captain of the tug happens to be drunk, the scenario can be positively exciting.

A tugboat skipper had his captain's license revoked by the Coast Guard recently after an incident of drunkenness in August 1997 that resulted in damage to his tug and caused his crew to fear for their lives. The captain was attempting to get his tug, Bay King, underway and down channel from a terminal in Baltimore with a 250-foot container barge alongside. His first maneuver resulted in the barge running into the tug, nearly capsizing it in the process.

"With the barge on the hip, he was trying to pull away from the dock and then put the barge onto a hawser once it was out in the channel," said Lt. Cdr. Jerry Crooks, senior investigations officer at the Coast Guard's Marine Safety Office in Hampton Roads, Va. Although successful at getting the barge off the pier, the captain apparently forgot to switch the tug's controls to the outside station, so he had to head back up to the wheelhouse.

Meanwhile, since the tug's crew had already cast off lines, the barge was drifting at a rate of two knots toward the tug. Bay King's crew became alarmed at seeing the approaching barge and ran forward on the tug, attempting to stay out of the way of the hawser that was under tension and swinging wildly across the tug's fantail.

"The barge then smashed into Bay King's starboard side, causing it to heel to port," Crooks added. The tug suffered damaged railings and bent plating.

Once underway, with the container barge secured on a short hawser, the captain set a course down-channel bound for the Chesapeake Bay. The tug's crew later reported to the Coast Guard that, while they were in the galley, they happened to look out the port holes and notice that the tug was dangerously off course and leaving the channel.

"The crew then ran up the companionway and discovered that there was no one in the wheelhouse. They found the captain asleep in his bunk," Crooks said. The crew reported that, since they were unable to wake the captain, they woke the mate, who was quickly able to get the vessel under control.

Bay King was brought back to the dock after being relieved by another tugboat from the same company. The captain's blood-alcohol level was found to be .197, nearly five times the legal limit of .04, despite the fact that a Coast Guard test was administered 24 hours after the initial incident.