Just like the grounding of the North Cape and Scandia in 1996, in many ways the tug Charlene Hunt followed that well-worn path of incomplete, poor or nonexistent voyage-planning that has condemned many other voyages.
The Charlene Hunt was a very poorly maintained 50-plus-year-old tug that left port in January 2013 on a long-distance, dead-ship tow directly into known bad North Atlantic winter weather. It had a towing arrangement of unknown condition and questionable strength. No one should be surprised that the tow parted and that they were unable to reconnect it.
According to the Transportation Safety Board of Canada’s report released in June, “When the tug and tow departed St. John’s on 23 January at 1200, gale and freezing spray warnings were in effect for the voyage waters.” Yes, here’s yet another instance of either ignoring or underestimating the weather. As it happens, the relief master had 35 years of experience in towing, but none of it was in those waters.
Experience can sometimes work against you when you fail to realize that it isn’t always directly applicable, or sometimes even remotely relevant, to the specific mission and conditions at hand. Deliberate caution should be used in the case-by-case application of experience. Specifically, despite the relief master’s prior Alaska experience, the TSB report stated that he did not “appreciate the severity of the environmental conditions to be expected for the season and voyage area. The relief master was therefore unaware of whether the towing arrangement was sufficient to make the voyage safely.”
How did this happen? Wasn’t there shoreside adult supervision? Apparently, the overall lack of awareness was not limited to the tug’s relief master. There appears to have been some big knowledge gaps throughout the operation. None of the shoreside principals (the scrapyard-bound ship’s owner that bareboat-chartered the tug, his business partner and the operations manager that was hired to oversee the job) had any seafaring experience. The operations manager had some limited business experience in Great Lakes shipping, but “had minimal knowledge of the requirements for vessels on international voyages,” the TSB report said. For all of them it was their very first tow.