A veteran Mississippi River towboat captain’s 45 years of experience led him to inattention during a routine bridge transit, resulting in the tow contacting a bridge pier and $2 million in damage, the National Transportation Safety Board reported April 2.

The 160’ towboat Susan K was downbound toward the Natchez-Vidalia Bridge around 10:42 p.m. on April 23, 2023, headed for the western channel under the bridge, according to a summary from NTSB.

But the captain’s attention slipped during the approach. “The tow was out of position for the intended route and the captain’s awareness of the situation came too late to avoid striking a bridge pier,” according to the agency.

Investigators found no evidence that the captain was fatigued, impaired or distracted. They noted the captain had decades of experience steering towing vessels and maneuvering tows, including hundreds of transits through the Natchez-Vidalia Bridge.

Interviewed by investigators, the captain said his attention lapsed after rounding the river bend above the bridge, and too late “realized that I was way off my marks.”

Trying to recover and make for the eastern channel, the captain increased to full power and used rudder movements. But the tow contacted the center bridge pier, breaking up the tow, sinking one barge and damaging two others.

The captain acknowledged that he was lulled by his own long experience. “You get complacent sometimes when you do something so many times and you're sloppy,” he told investigators.

The agency said its findings are a cautionary lesson for all mariners.

“Repetition and monotony can cause even the most experienced and skilled mariner to become complacent and lose situational awareness,” the report said. “Developing strategies that help maintain focus is a good practice. These strategies may include continuous scanning of instruments and surroundings outside the wheelhouse, strict adherence to procedures, eliminating distractions, changing position or moving (standing up or walking around), and getting enough sleep and exercise.”

Marine Investigation Report 24-06 is available online.