Sailors say tug gave no warning Yacht crew recount harbor collision

July 26, 1993|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,Staff Writer

The tug that struck and sank a sailboat near the Dundalk Marine Terminal on July 13 did not sound a warning with its horn before the collision and apparently was navigating on automatic pilot, four of the six crew members of the sailing vessel have told The Sun.

And according to the account of the accident the tug's captain gave to the U.S. Coast Guard, his vessel turned left -- the wrong direction -- just before the crash.

The impact knocked two of the sailboat's crew members into the water dangerously close to the churning propellers of the Cape Romain, a 105-foot-long tug owned by Moran Towing of Maryland Inc.

Four crew members of the 33-foot-long Lady Jane -- Wayne Steedman and his wife, Cheryl, Burton Lohnes and John Marston -- all say they saw no one at the tug's helm as it moved at high speed on the Patapsco River. It apparently was navigating on automatic pilot until just seconds before the collision, they said.

"We all had different vantage points from the deck," said Mr. Marston, who has been sailing for 35 years. "I could tell there was nobody at the wheel in the tug's pilothouse. Seconds before we were hit, a cleanshaven man appeared at the wheel and turned hard left. Then we got it."

As the tug bore down on the Lady Jane, Mr. Lohnes said it looked "like we were going to get hit by a three-story building."

"We saw it coming up the channel, and we had our eyes on it. She was moving at a high rate of speed," he said.

"When it became clear that the tug was not going to change course, our captain ordered a tack right, and the tug was right on us. Normally, we can see if anyone is at the wheel of a tug, but I didn't see anyone in the pilothouse. They sounded no horn, no signal at all."

Lt. Cmdr. Michael Kearney, the Coast Guard's senior marine safety officer for the Port of Baltimore, said the investigation will take three to six months.

The city Police Department's marine unit was on the scene minutes after the crash and took statements from both crews. But nearly two weeks after the accident, the police department has not released a report on its investigation. The department has offered no explantion for its failure to make the report public.

Maritime observers say the incident underscores the dangerous conditions on the crowded shipping channel, which is used by pleasure boats and commercial craft.

Mr. Lohnes and Mr. Steedman were rescued by a Coast Guard vessel bearing U.S. Transportation Secretary Federico F. Pena, who was in Baltimore inspecting port facilities before attending the All-Star game at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

Compromise needed

"I wasn't aware of the crowded conditions on the water there," Mr. Pena said last week. "It seems to me that reasonable people could sit down and achieve a compromise. . . . The port should attempt to resolve the problem before there is serious injury or death."

One source familiar with local shipping operations expressed concern about the lack of enforcement of maritime laws in the crowded Inner and Outer harbors.

"The [maritime] industry in the port sometimes resembles a Wild West town," said the source. "There's all this action going on, and the town doesn't have a sheriff."

City marine police and the Coast Guard have said the cause of the collision hinges on which vessel had the right of way and which did not yield.

Navigational rules

The Coast Guard's Mr. Kearney said, "Generally, vessels under sail have the right of way over a motorized vessel. But that could have been superseded if the tug had been in a towing operation. There are other considerations like special navigational rules regarding channels, who does what to avoid a collision . . . This is why it [the investigation] will take so long."

But Mr. Kearney said that once it was clear a collision was going to occur, the tug should have sounded its horn -- something that never happened, the sailboat's crew contends. And vessels on a collision course should both turn to their starboard, or right, he said.The Cape Romain's skipper, Lee Lowry, told the Coast Guard the tug turned left.Edmond J. Moran Jr., president of Moran, said last week, "It is company policy not to comment on an ongoing federal investigation."Paul Swensen, vice president and general manager of the company, said there was "not a chance" to interview Mr. Lowry, the skipper of the tug, or any members of his crew.

'Worldwide reputation'

Michael J. Prenger, a licensed bay pilot and vice president of the Association of Maryland Pilots, said the Moran company, in business since the 1860s, "has a worldwide reputation for safe and professional operations, and I can't remember anything like this happening in my time in the port."

"People have to remember a tug is a hull wrapped around a big engine and was not built to be efficient moving through the water," he said.

And, Mr. Prenger added, "Using a main shipping channel for a race and buoys as markers might not be a real good idea."

Feared for her life

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