It’s a fact that tugs and towboats don’t sink every day. It’s a somewhat rare event. But if you think that the dangers of inadequate ventilation and open doors, hatches or other openings is overblown, then you should carefully read about the sad tale of the towboat Ricky Robinson, which sank on the Mississippi River near Memphis, Tenn., in 2017.


The list of things that weren’t right in this casualty is extensive: weather deck void covers left open, chronic “mystery” water leaks, inter-compartmental cable runs unsealed, and our old friend the wide-open engine room doors. In a classic case of deviating from the norm and then normalizing that deviation, the deckhands had to pump out the steadily leaking stern void multiple times per shift. And for the practical purpose of maintaining quick access to those void spaces, their covers were removed and left off.

Here’s an important item from the NTSB report: In a memo to the Coast Guard regarding the flooding and loss of the Ricky Robinson, the company, Wepfer Marine, held the deckhand accountable for “not keeping the hatch covers tight” and not closing the engine room doors. The company held the pilot accountable for “producing an excessive rate of speed in a light boat condition.”

However, former crewmembers stated that the vessel was being operated normally with watertight hatches and engine room doors open despite the company’s checklist requiring closure of hatches, the NTSB report said.

If you find yourself in circumstances like this where mariners and co-workers have normalized that way of dealing with serious vessel problems — and for whatever reason remains unaddressed — a reality check is in order.

Incidents like the sinking of the Ricky Robinson and the deaths of the crew doesn’t happen often, but it happens often enough. It can happen to any of us. And when it does occur, it tends to be, as with this casualty, very quick. The pilot, Keith Pigram, was 35 years old at the time of the accident. His stepson and deckhand, Anquavius Jamison, was 19.