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FFC studies lessons of tugboats' near-miss

Nov. 27, 2012 - 10:57AM   |   Last Updated: Nov. 27, 2012 - 10:57AM  |  
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On Nov. 5, fleet leaders assembled all ship skippers in the Hampton Roads, Va., region for a sobering discussion of a recent ship-driving incident that disrupted road and shipping traffic and nearly resulted in a collision.

The incident occurred in the worst possible spot: the tight shipping lane over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, a highway that carries traffic between Hampton Roads and Virginia's eastern shore. Early Aug. 21, two Navy tugboats headed out through the narrow channel, towing a floating platform as part of an exercise.

At the channel, the tugs came within 30 feet of colliding with an inbound container ship, Navy documents show. That proximity prompted the 902-foot-long container ship to take evasive action.

The incident comes amid a season fraught with navigation incidents. In the span of five months this year, four warships sustained damage in collisions, the most in a decade. In fact, the Aug. 21 incident, which officials termed a "near-miss," occurred only nine days after a Norfolk, Va.-based destroyer struck a supertanker near the Strait of Hormuz.

Fleet Forces Command says the "Safety Stand Easy" call only addressed issues stemming from this one incident. A spokesman noted that the thorough dissection of what happened before all of the region's commanding officers, led by Vice Adm. Michelle Howard, the command's No. 2, is evidence that officials are taking this seriously.

On the day of the incident, the warping tugs, assigned to Amphibious Construction Battalion 2, had been towing a roll-on, roll-off discharge facility a 240-foot-long floating platform used to drive vehicles off a ship from Amphibious Base Little Creek to Cape Henry, the northernmost point of Virginia Beach.

Instead of staying to the right of the channel, the tugs swung across it at 5:40 a.m., according to a slide showing their navigation track used in the Nov. 5 presentation by Fleet Forces Command, a copy of which was obtained by Navy Times.

This appeared to put them on a collision course with container ship APL Oman, then headed inbound on the other side of the channel. APL Oman's master took "emergency evasive action," FFC's slides said.

To stop faster, the ship's master dropped anchor. This happened near or on top of the traffic tunnel, the brief reported.

Seeing this, tunnel police sounded the bridge's collision alarm and closed the tunnel for roughly 20 minutes, the FFC slides said, noting that officials later assessed that the tunnel was not damaged.

The near-miss offers plenty of lessons. Five stand-easy slides are devoted to them, which range from being aware of commercial shipping and not using a vessel tracking system for navigation to the importance of standard commands an issue that has come up in some of the other incidents.

In addition to bad driving, one of the biggest issues found was lighting. The tugs didn't show the proper navigation lights, potentially confusing other mariners, and weren't properly configured for towing the platform.

Errors like these, the brief noted, could harm the Navy's reputation among professional mariners.

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