Tanker's crew faulted for grounding

Negligence blamed for vessel that ran aground in Nikiski

Posted: Sunday, November 12, 2006

ANCHORAGE - The crew of an oil tanker that ran aground near Nikiski in February has been faulted for the mishap.

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The crew of the Seabulk Pride failed to safely tie the vessel to the dock, properly staff the bridge or get the engine ready for a quick start in case of trouble, according to an investigative report by the U.S Coast Guard.

A surging tide and ice floes rammed against the bow of the tanker early Feb. 2 as the vessel was tied to a Nikiski dock loading fuel oil, gasoline and other products from the Tesoro refinery.

Mooring lines snapped until the ship broke free and drifted onto a beach about half a mile to the north. The tanker had 32 people aboard and nearly 5 million gallons of petroleum.

The crew refloated the beached tanker the next day with the help of rescue tugs and a high tide. There was relatively minor damage to the double-hulled vessel, which is back in service.

The Coast Guard report said the tanker crew violated a number of safety rules imposed to protect shipping from fast-moving ice that tends to build up in Cook Inlet after severe cold snaps.

The Coast Guard will pursue a two-month suspension of captain Stewart Potter's license, the report said, "for failure to ensure that the vessel's moorings were strong enough to hold during all expected conditions."

The tanker's operator, Seabulk Tankers Inc. of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., agreed with the Coast Guard's main conclusion that the current and ice swept the ship off the dock, said Jim Butler, a Kenai attorney for the company. He said Seabulk, however, didn't necessarily agree with Coast Guard criticisms on how well the ship was tied to the dock, or whether the right people were standing watch on the bridge.

"It was a massive force that affected that ship at the dock," he said. "We don't think the line handling or the watch practices contributed in any way to the grounding."

The company will work with the Coast Guard on ways to improve ship safety, Butler said.

A marine pilot - an experienced ship captain familiar with local waters - was on the bridge looking for ice, according to the report. Potter was in his stateroom when mooring lines began to snap at 5:23 a.m., the report said.

At one point, the 600-foot tanker was attached to the dock only by the hoses being used to fill the holds with petroleum, and those soon broke as well, the report said. As much as 210 gallons of product spilled into the water.

Crew members dropped an anchor and tried to steer the vessel away from land. They scrambled to start the ship's main engine, but it failed to fire up after at least 12 tries, according to the report. Investigators ultimately determined the engine was kept from starting because broken lines had wrapped around the propeller.

Drug and alcohol tests on key crew members were negative, according to the report.

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