Good communication is vital for commercial vessels, whether it involves messages to crew on the shipboard PA system or to distant vessels over the VHF. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) cited poor communication as one of the causes of a recent accident where a barge hit a railroad bridge on Louisiana’s Lake Borgne, near Lake Pontchartrain.

A 56', twin-screw towboat was pushing the 195' barge through an open railroad swing bridge. Offering a vertical clearance of 11' in its closed position, the 414' span could rotate to provide a 153'-wide passage to vessels. At around 10:30 p.m. on Jan. 12, 2021, the pilot radioed ahead at mile 38 to notify the bridge operator that they were roughly 30 minutes away and would require opening of the bridge span. The bridge operator responded that two trains had to pass first.

As a general condition for drawbridges, federal regulations require that land and sea traffic pass over or through the draw as quickly as possible to avoid unnecessary delays in the opening and closing of the draw. Shortly after 11:00 p.m., the towboat pilot observed the two trains pass. After seeing this, the pilot asked the bridge operator if the bridge was open. When asked where he was, he replied that he was about 15 minutes away waiting for the bridge. The bridge operator replied that he was going to open the bridge. At some point after 11:30 pm, the captain relieved the pilot. They worked on a six-on, six-off schedule.

Shortly before midnight, the tug and barge commenced their transit of the passage at around seven mph, and the port side of the barge struck the south end of the overhanging bridge span. According to the NTSB, the bridge was not fully open. The NTSB cites  communication deficiencies of the towboat in failing to confirm the bridge was fully open, and those of the bridge operator for failing to notify the towboat if he observed that the bridge was not fully open. Absence of bridge span lighting contributed to the accident. Fortunately, no one was injured.

It’s easy to examine things in hindsight. The events here could have happened to anyone.

Tim Akpinar is a Little Neck, N.Y. based maritime attorney and former marine engineer. He can be reached at 718-224-9824 or [email protected]