NTSB Report on the Sinking of the Tug Specialist

Here is the NTSB Report on the Sinking of the Tug Specialist.

Hopefully, this might lead to some changes in how these Smaller Companies Crew their vessels and stop them from working people around the clock, or close to it.

I have my own feelings on why this happened and will be very interested to hear what everyone here thinks about this report.



I’m not sure how much fatigue actually played in the sinking but usually companies that are run like that aren’t at the top of the game.

I had two observations from the report:

  1. the only license the captain of the realist was listed as having was a 100 ton master.

  2. there was this mention about an inspection hit the specialist had: “Vessel’s master must have a towing license with endorsement for appropriate tonnage,”

Except for a very few weird exceptions due to the way grandfathering worked there is no tonnage on a towing license. That sounds like either the master had MOT 100 tons or the USCG inspectors didn’t know what they were talking about.

Whatever became of the owner? Is he still on the run out of the country?
Seems to me he should be facing some criminal charges.

It’s more than a few exceptions. Under the circa 2001 grandfathering, if you had experience towing under a Master 100 license, your Master of Towing Vessels license was also limited to 100 GRT. However, to get the tonnage limitation removed, all that is required is to take and pass the applicable exam for Apprentice Mate (Steersman).

The Coast Guard examination that noted that the master must have a towing endorsement was done 2 years before the allusion. I didn’t see anything about whether or not the master at the time of the USCG examination was the same one onboard at the time of the allusion.

Doesn’t necessarily mean anything, but Im wondering what the female passenger aboard the Realist was up to? How it played into the situation and all.

Or if she even left the dock with the tug.
Maybe she was the Captain’s girlfriend visiting him onboard?

Probably so. It was not elaborated in the report is all.

Anyways mis-manning, undermanning, and fatigue were all occurring. Causality of each up to interpretation. By the crews own admission, visibility from the pilothouse of the lead tug was obscured by the barge. Specialist wheelman misjudged the space available on the approach and his warning came too late. As is so common, boat underway on a dangerous job with the watertight main deck doors open. Horrible for all the crew but to top it off a brave man paid for his bravery with death despite it all.

Notwithstanding all of the many other things that were wrong with the entire scenario, but were mostly not really in the crew’s power to completely control, as far as their own personal safety was concerned it came down to 1 thing that was in their control: those open doors.

Open doors always elevate risk, period, whether you’re at the dock, transiting light boat or involved in a higher-risk transit or maneuver. That’s simply a given. No amount of bluster or bullshit or excuses will change that elementary fact.

Yes, the tug(s) were underpowered, and probably unsuited for the job at hand (as in, unseaworthy). Given that and all the other circumstances they should have made that bridge transit at slack going to flood, not with a ripping ebb. With the strong fair current they should have at least slowed down to bare steerage so they could accelerate through. Yes, undermanning (and the fatigue it unavoidably induces) has always been and remains a serious problem that dogs the industry. Yes, tugs could and should be designed better. Yes, the tugs involved in general towing get less oversight and scrutiny, and tend to be in worse condition and operated more haphazardly. Yes, internal company and customer pressures drive people to make poor decisions to accept more risks than they should. Yes to all of it. Usually that doesn’t outright kill people, at least not on the spot (although long-term fatigue does kill you slowly via deteriorating general health during your career). But every once in a while all of the risk-taking allows the holes in the Swiss cheese to line up on you, and you can then very easily and quickly become a statistic. You’ll never see it coming early enough to avoid it, probably because you’ll be too tired and your judgment will be degraded.

What can you do about all of that? Fuck all, mostly. But you can close the damned doors. Really close them, as in fully dogged down. Do that simple thing and even if everything else goes completely to shit on you, you just might get to go home more or less in one piece.

I hope I never see or hear about another one of these happening again, but somehow I just know I will. I guess that makes me a realist.


Sparrow I agree with you on the doors being open on so many boats as an invitation for disaster. It’s a huge personal pet peeve of mine, and it seems to be a constant game on older boats of keeping the doors closed and not over heating the engines, due to the multiple intake and exhaust blowers usually not working. I’ve fought that battle with the deckineer on the opposite watch before.

In this case it might not have made a whole hell of a lot of difference, considering you could have driven a bus into the galley from the hole in her side.

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This was my thought also.

When I worked harbor tugs, doors were left open for ventilation as we did not have A/C and the ER got very hot. Most tugs had “Dutch” doors so the lower half could be closed.

Fast forward to working sea going boats and most doors were left open by crew members that had little of no idea of how fast things could turn to shit. I can’t tell you how many times I bitched to the Captain only to be told, “well I guess you need to do a better job of checking them”.

Yeah, fuck guys like that. Yes, it’s your job to check the doors BUT the crew needs to be taught to have a personal accountability as well.

Yeah that’s not a captain, it’s a mate who works the day watch.


One reason crew leave doors open for is for convenience. Nagging and “checking” doesn’t help much. A routine needs to be established. Deep-sea mates like to log “rounds made, all secure” That’s a lie if WTDs are open. If a guy get called out of the rack to go back and close doors that were left open it won’t happen again.

Doors left open on a tug due to lack of ventilation is a problems that’s tougher to solve.

That’s why I mentioned poor design. Any door that the crew needs to go through on a very regular basis, in particular those that must be kept closed to comply with the stability letter, should be a QAWTD, whether handle or wheel-type (I prefer the handle-type for most applications because they usually give better leverage). The doors to the weather decks of a tug certainly meet that definition.

It’s shoveling shit against the tide when personnel are expected to make regular rounds and would have to manually un-dog and re-dog a door every time they need or want to go through it.

Having said that, I’ve been told to my face by crew that the engine room door I was standing right next to was dogged shut, with just 1 dog closed down about half way. The masters have to insist on it and enforce the policy as harshly as circumstances dictate.

Of course if the gaskets are rotten or painted over you’re compromised there too.

It always seems like a never-ending struggle trying to protect us from ourselves.

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From the report the crew was putting in some 20-24 hr. work days. That’s the equivalent to a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.10%.

The ability to judge speed and distance, exactly what was needed in this operation, is diminished by fatigue.

That song remains the same on all tugs, inspections or no inspections. Anyone who ever believed that the industry was ever really going to get serious about safety, or that the Coast Guard had the will and the juice to force the industry to clean up its act, was sadly mistaken. Congress was negligent when they wrote the law by neglecting manning and fatigue, and the Coast Guard certainly didn’t push the issue.

The industry and its representatives simply stick their heads further into the sand and continue to pretend that fatigue doesn’t exist, as has been done all along.

Meanwhile, per the 2013 recommendation of the NTSB, Utah just lowered the BAC for drunk driving from .08 to .05, like most of the rest of the world, with Washington and Hawaii likely soon to follow. Other states, no doubt, will go that way too.

It’s pretty sad, and embarrassing, when the legal manning standards and watch schedules, approved by our Congress and enthusiastically embraced by the industry, automatically put us in the position of comparing unfavorably against drunk drivers. And as if that weren’t enough, the industry often fails to abide by even those lax rules.

So we get what we have.

Cheers, everybody!

WT doors have always been a pet peeve of mine. As CE I was required to certify that all dogs and gaskets were in good working condition, the CM had the same requirement on his tour of duty. Every couple of months we would go around and free up all of the dogs, meaning they were pulled out, cleaned up, re-shimmed and reinstalled. This included replacing the zirc fittings. I would be told that a door had frozen dogs and almost every time I would find the zirc fittings painted.

I would sit down with the Captain to dicuss what I found and he would just say “so fix them”. The CM would log that the AB greased the dogs but the funny part was when I wiped the greys off the zirc, I would find it painted shut. It really pissed me off with how guys would half ass a job and get away with it.

Man, this has brought back a lot of bad memories and makes me so glad that I’m retied!

Around about 1992 or so I was second mate on a container ship going to Dutch Harbor. One of the corrections to the harbor chart of Dutch was the addition of a wreck symbol just off Spithead. I asked the mate about it and he told me that assist tug being used on the ship’s previous trip came out and made fast with some engine room covers (?) off from some work that was in progress. When the ship made the turn into Dutch Harbor, just outside the spit with the tug made fast the deck of the tug was pushed under and flooded the E/R. The deck crew threw the pilot ladder down and the tug crew all got off onto the ship but the tug went to the bottom.

All the companies did was add more paperwork burden for the captain’s and mates to do.