In the wake of three recent towing vessel sinkings on the Lower Mississippi River, the Coast Guard issued Marine Safety Alert 03-19 on Wednesday warning towboat operators about high water conditions on the river.

One of the three casualties resulted in a fatality. These cases are all under investigation by the Coast Guard, but the preliminary investigation indicates that there are some similarities between the three incidents. In all three cases towing vessels became pinned against another object that exposed the vessel broadside to very strong currents. Once in that position, the vessels could not recover and sank.

The high water conditions on the Mississippi present numerous risks for towing vessels, including unusually strong river currents and dynamic eddies. These river currents are often different from one section of the river to another. Thus, it is absolutely essential that vessel operators provide a wide berth when maneuvering around any other vessel or object, the Coast Guard said. For reference, when a river current is flowing at one knot, the water is moving at 1.7 feet per second, or approximately 100 feet per minute. This means that in a six knot current, the water is moving about the length of a football field in just 30 seconds. Additionally, the faster the current, the greater the forces acting on a vessel when it’s pinned against a stationery object.

The U.S. Coast Guard strongly recommends that towing vessel owners, operators, and others take the following measures:

  • Avoid transiting between two anchored vessels, between two barge fleets, or between any other set of stationary objects.
  • Minimize the number of operations which require the vessel to be positioned beam to the river current.
  • Establish minimum distances between the towing vessel and another vessel/object prior to conducting any operation that requires the vessel to be positioned beam-to the current.
  • Recognize the risks involved in operating under high current conditions and weigh those risks before attempting to cross in front of stationery objects or attempting an operation that requires the vessel to be positioned beam to the current.

This safety alert was created by Coast Guard Sector New Orleans. Questions regarding this safety alert may be sent to the Sector New Orleans Waterways Management Division at [email protected] or the Sector New Orleans Inspections Division at [email protected].