Open door policy — Part I

The National Transportation Safety Board determined that the “probable cause of the flooding and sinking of the towing vessel Savage Ingenuity was the absence of company procedures requiring the closure of weather deck doors at all times when underway, which resulted in the rapid down flooding into the engine room when the vessel heeled while perpendicular to a strong current with the head of its tow pushed into a river bank.”

That was the conclusion of the NTSB’s Marine Accident Brief 18-21. The brief describes the chain of events that led to the loss of the 68’×28′, 1,880-hp towboat in the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway near Sulphur, La., on Sept. 5, 2017, in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.

Accurately determining and articulating the true causes of any accident, however, often proves elusive. As is almost always the case, human shortcomings resulted in the towboat’s sinking, not some type of unforeseeable circumstance, such as the high water and swift currents generated by Hurricane Harvey’s record rainfall. Specifically, which shortcomings were causative and to what degree? How should they be ranked? Those are always debatable points upon which agreement often goes hard aground because the truth is always unpalatable to someone.

The Savage Ingenuity, designed with a very-low freeboard, heeled over from the forces acting on it. The towboat took enough water on deck to make it over the very low sill of the engine room door on the low side, and from there the process of down flooding began.

The flooding shut down the engines and the towboat’s fate was sealed.

Fortunately, there was no loss of life — this time. It doesn’t always go so well. But the costs of this “mistake” were steep: an estimated $1.35 million in damage to the boat, which was later salvaged, and the substantial environmental damage from the 11,800 gals. of diesel that was released, most of which was not recovered.

The obvious $1.35 million dollar question is why were the engine room doors open? After the accident, the company updated operating procedures by requiring that “all hatches, doors and portholes on the weather deck shall remain in the closed position” when the vessel is under way.

About the author

Joel Milton

Joel Milton has worked aboard fishing boats, pilot boats, Coast Guard cutters and small boats, dredge tenders, offshore crewboats and supply boats, towing vessels, a small container ship, and a wide variety of small craft including an inflatable yellow “ducky” The Piker.


  1. Avatar
    Robert Stanley on

    In 1971, I commenced work on a project which already had been brought to a nearly-complete status by others in the G-MMT-5 branch of the Merchant Marine Technical office at U.S.Coast Guard headquarters. That project sought to improve safety of design and operation of tugboats. An important concern was to minimize disruption to the tugboat industry while seeking ways to improve overall safety and avoid loss of life and equipment. A memorable conclusion from the project was that simply closing the doors and vents at the Main Deck level, especially those leading directly to the engine room, would have prevented bad results in many cases where the forces acting on the tug had caused heeling to 1 side, leading to flooding of the engine room and capsizing/foundering of the tugboat. But when we proposed to require closing those doors and vents under those conditions and in rough conditions generally, we were opposed by the Commander of the 8th USCG District, who took it upon himself to “defend” the industry. The industry was ill-served by this “defense,” as the story of the SAVAGE INGENUITY has demonstrated. It is time for the USCG to update that project and implement its findings as regulations.

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