The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said recently that a major barge tow collision on the Mississippi River last year resulted from a towing vessel pilot incorrectly remembering the agreed-upon passing arrangement.

The Jan. 9, 2023, collision resulted in two minor injuries and the release of approximately 1,380 gals. of ethanol into the waterway. Damage to the 14 barges was estimated at $1.36 million.

In accordance with the Inland Navigation Rules, which govern water traffic regulations, vessels are required to signal their maneuvering intentions using either the vessel’s whistle or VHF radio when meeting or crossing paths.

Approximately 20 minutes prior to the encounter near Fort Adams, Miss., between the 19-barge Big D tow and the 42-barge Carol McManus tow, the pilots reached an agreement via VHF radio for a port-to-port passage.

The Big D tow pilot directed their downbound tow towards the right descending bank, while the pilot of the Carol McManus tow incorrectly recalled the arrangement, and steered his upbound tow towards the same bank. Despite both pilots recognizing the impending collision, there was insufficient time in their attempts to maneuver.

The tows collided head-on just before 2 a.m., and multiple barges made contact.

The 6,000-hp, 133.4'x42' Big D towboat is owned by Florida Marine Transporters and the 9,000-hp, 162.7x50' Carol McManus is owned by Ingram Barge Co.

The report emphasized the importance of communication protocol, stating, “When one mariner proposes an arrangement to another, the other mariner should repeat back the proposed passing arrangement to ensure both parties have a shared understanding of the arrangement.”

The accident further highlighted the significance of verbally rehearsing such arrangements to reinforce understanding and retention until required.

According to the NTSB report, the pilot of the Carol McManus could have been more likely to recall the agreement and adjust their maneuver if the pilot had repeated it back.

The full Marine Investigation Report 23-30 can be accessed here.

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