Canada safety board cites crew fatigue in tug grounding

A mate who fell asleep on watch was the primary cause of a July 2017 tug grounding in British Columbia, an incident that underscores the industry’s need to better manage crew fatigue, Canadian transportation safety officials reported.

In a report issued Jan. 10 the Transportation Safety Board of Canada said the 47.2’x19.4’x8’, 1,600-hp twin-screw tug Ocean Monarch with three crew members on board made bottom contact while transiting the Princess Royal Channel south of Kitimat, British Columbia, on July 9, 2017, while towing the 190’x46’x15.5’ cement barge Evco No. 15. No pollution or injuries were reported, but the tug’s hull, starboard propeller and nozzle were damaged.

After a damage assessment and actions taken to prevent fuel from leaking, the tug resumed its voyage to Kitimat using the port engine. It then returned to the Fraser River and a shipyard in Vancouver for repairs.

The safety board investigation found that the mate, standing watch alone, fell asleep while the tug and barge transited on autopilot through the channel. The mate had been on duty for at least eight hours, and at the time of the grounding the captain and a deckhand where sleeping below deck. Moreover, investigators said all the tug’s navigational alarms were disabled.

“The mate fell asleep likely as a result of acute fatigue from previous night shifts, chronic sleep disruptions, circadian rhythm desynchronization, combined with the low and monotonous workload in the wheelhouse,” investigators wrote.

The latest report reinforces the safety board’s push for better fatigue management in the tug and barge industry, a key finding in its report on the October 2016 grounding and sinking of the tugboat Nathan E. Stewart in British Columbia. In that case, the safety board explicitly criticized the six hours-on, six-off watch system commonly used by mariners, saying it does not allow for sufficient sleep.

In the Ocean Monarch case, the safety board determined that tug operator Mercury Launch & Tug Ltd., Vancouver, British Columbia, “had no strategies in place to mitigate crew fatigue,” despite a June 2011 incident when one of its vessel allided with a railway bridge, an accident that also involved crew fatigue.

The Ocean Monarch operated on a 24/7 schedule, so “a three-member crew made it challenging, and at times impossible, to maintain two people on the bridge every night while also ensuring the crew was sufficiently rested,” the investigators wrote. “If an operator does not have a fatigue management plan and is not required to have one, there is a risk that crews will work while fatigued, increasing the likelihood of an error that leads to an occurrence.”

Both the Transportation Safety Board and the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board say fatigue management is a major issue across all modes of transport. In its report on the Nathan E. Stewart, the Canadian board called for mandatory education and awareness training for watchkeepers whose work and rest periods are regulated, to help them identify and prevent the risks of fatigue. The board also recommended the government require vessel owners to implement comprehensive fatigue-management plans, designed specifically for their individual operations.

As a result of the safety board investigation, Mercury Launch & Tug installed a navigational watch alarm on the bridge of the Ocean Monarch. The company ordered that all alarms be enabled and monitored at all times, and implemented new, safer operating procedures.

About the author

Kirk Moore

Associate Editor Kirk Moore was a reporter for the Asbury Park Press for over 30 years before joining WorkBoat in 2015. He wrote several award-winning stories on marine, environmental, coastal and military issues that helped drive federal and state government policy changes. He has also been a field editor for WorkBoat’s sister publication, National Fisherman, for almost 25 years. Moore was awarded the Online News Association 2011 Knight Award for Public Service for the “Barnegat Bay Under Stress,” 2010 series that led to the New Jersey state government’s restoration plan. He lives in West Creek, N.J.


  1. Avatar
    Ryan Boudreaux on

    I have worked in the towing industry for over 18 years and in the Gulf of Mexico oil industry for over 30 years I find a lot of the blame goes between office managers for pressuring crews and most of all the coast guard them self for allowing under manning the vessels. in my opinion every vessel sailing near coastal needs to be crewed with no less than 6 crew members min. I know a lot of vessels running 4 crew members you just can’t all what is required nowadays with that size of crew.

  2. Avatar

    I think the answer to these types of problems is not have a comfy place to sit in the wheel house. I’m an old guy and been on ships and boats. None had a chair. I carried that over to my own vessels. I’ve done some double and triple watches when everyone was sea sick but me. I did the watch on my feet.
    I’ve been nearby in 2 accidents where commercial fishing boats, running on autopilots, came into anchorages with a sleeping watch stander. In Crescent City, Ca., a large vessel ran up on the sloping beach so gently. the watch stander didn’t wake until the engine alarms went off. And the other in outer Bodega Bay, a boat on autopilot with a sleeping watch stander, managed to cross the reef untouched, and bounced off several boats in the anchorage before being brought under control. Both times, a nice comfy chair.

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