Captain Christopher Hoo: Averting disaster on the river

At around four o’clock on a foggy morning in March 2011, while en route from Pilottown to New Orleans General Anchorage, M/V PLOVDIV lost all power to the main engine and all online generators just below the Algiers Locks, three miles from the anchorage.

There were no noted deficiencies to the ship’s machinery and equipment when I took control of the vessel at Pilottown.

When power loss occurred there was patchy, deck-high fog in the area and the visibility was about two miles and deteriorating fast. Winds were light and westerly and the river stage was 12.3 feet, with 4.5 miles per hour current. There was no moving traffic in the area and the closest vessels were towing vessels pushed into the bank. I had just passed the LESLIE B, which was pushed into the west bank about .75 miles below the Algiers locks. The towing vessel SPIRIT was pushed into the west bank just above the Algiers locks.

Approximately five minutes before power loss, the order was given to prepare both port (left) and starboard (right) anchors for anchoring, and to position the anchors one meter above water outside the hawse pipe. Another order was given to make ready the bow thruster for use during the anchoring. Immediately after power loss, I checked to see if we had steering or control of the rudder, but it did not respond. I immediately made an emergency radio broadcast for a loss of power, noted the ship’s direction and location, and requested emergency assistance from any harbor tugs in the area. Shortly thereafter, all visibility was lost due to shut out fog. I requested assistance from Vessel Traffic Center New Orleans, since I was in the blind from the fog and I had no radars or electronic instrumentation to see anything, or to know my exact location. I made contact with the towing vessel SPIRIT and told him to do an emergency evacuation, because I was headed right for him and might not stop before the anchors could stop me.

The ship drifted for about .5 miles and lost her forward speed quickly due to the strong current. The order was given to let go the starboard anchor. I did not hear the anchor running out and asked the Captain what the reason was for the anchor not being let go by the crew on the bow. He wasn’t saying why or what the problem was; he was starting to panic and began screaming in his radio in Bulgarian. I repeated the order to let go the starboard anchor several times, and then I gave several orders to let go the port anchor. No anchors were going out and I started to sense there was a big problem on the bow and I didn’t know why. The ship had drifted to about 200 feet off the west bank and was now drifting astern (backward) at 1.0 mph and picking up speed fast. I called the LESLIE B and told her to get underway immediately because we were headed right for her and we could not stop.

A ship out of control

In the meantime, the harbor tugs MICHAEL S and LOUISIANA responded to the emergency call and were en route. A marine superintendent from the ship’s company was onboard and had come up to the bridge (wheelhouse). He was a former ship’s captain so I sent him up to the bow to find out what was going on up there. Now drifting downriver in zero visibility and on a dead runaway ship I couldn’t stop, the ship’s bow (front) just narrowly missed the steel protection structure for the Algiers water discharge. That could have ripped open the hull or fuel tanks. The ship was now going astern at 3.0 mph and increasing and luckily holding 50 ft. off in blacked out fog, but still no engine, no emergency generator, and no anchors to stop her. The ship was now in an extremely dangerous situation and getting worse. It was perhaps one of the worst-case scenarios a ship could be in.

I was now in constant radio communication with the tugs, guiding them to my position since they had difficulty seeing me on their radar because I was blending in with the bank. I was able to use my GPS position from my iPhone to guide the tugs to my position. About thirty minutes after power loss, tugs MICHAEL S and LOUISIANA arrived on scene and made visual contact with the ship just five feet away. Four minutes later the ship was finally stopped by the tugs pushing and pinning her on the west bank right across the river from the upper end of Murphy Oil dock (Valero Meraux), and it was just five hundred feet from colliding with the Meraux barge fleet.

A disaster averted

Shortly after the situation became stable, the marine superintendent reported that the ship’s Bosun put both anchor spools in gear at the same time for lowering outside the hawse pipe just prior to the power loss. By putting both anchors in gear at the same time instead of one at a time, he violated all standards of good seamanship and safety procedures by causing both anchors to be stuck in gear at the same time the power loss occurred. Now without any power to take the anchor spools out of gear so they can free-fall by gravity when you release the brake, the ship essentially could not drop her anchors in an emergency, which a ship must always have the ability to do.

As a result of the incident, there were no collisions with other vessels or docks, no grounding, no oil spill, no damage to the ship, and most importantly no injury or death to personnel on or off the ship.

As pilots, we are trained to react and take proper action to mitigate or prevent damage in the unfortunate event of losing total control of a ship due to power loss. We rely on all our experience, local knowledge, and expert ship-handling skills to do whatever it takes to prevent a disaster on the river. This incident is a great example of how invaluable pilots are especially in an emergency. Most of the time, we quietly and professionally go about our duties safely piloting ships on the treacherous Mississippi River without incident.

However, every once in a while we are thrust into emergency mode and faced with sheer terror. We calmly and professionally take mitigating actions to protect the economic interests of the port and the state, and to protect the environment from harmful impact. More importantly, we do everything humanly possible, and professionally, to prevent injury and loss of life to the citizens of Louisiana.

May 2019CRPPA