TSB raises dangers of crew fatigue in report on Inside Passage tug accident

A tugboat accident has the Transportation Safety Board repeating its calls for heightened awareness about the dangers of crew fatigue while at sea.

Ocean Monarch touched bottom in Princess Royal Channel after lone mate on watch duty fell asleep

The incident happened in the narrowest section of the Inside Passage, according to the TSB report. (BritishColumbia.com)

A tugboat accident off B.C.'s North Coast has the Transportation Safety Board repeating calls for heightened awareness about the dangers of crew fatigue while at sea.

There were no injuries or pollution spills when the Ocean Monarch touched bottom while on auto pilot in Princess Royal Channel, after the lone mate on watch duty fell asleep. 

But the accident could have been deadly, the board's senior marine investigator, Glenn Budden, said Thursday.

"We're talking very remote country," he said.

"It could have been much, much worse. We could have had three fatalities on our hands."

'You basically are impaired'

The Ocean Monarch was towing a barge filled with cement when the July 2017 accident occurred south of Kitimat, B.C.

The tug's master and deck hand were asleep below deck and the vessel's navigational alarms were off, the board's report says. It concludes the mate likely fell asleep as a result of acute fatigue from previous night shifts, chronic sleep disruptions and the monotonous workload in the wheel house.

"You basically are impaired," said Budden. "Your reaction time is slower. Your cognitive thinking is not what it should be."

The board recommended mandatory fatigue awareness training for watch keepers and fatigue management plans for vessel operators.

The board's report does not say who owns the tug. Attempts to find its owner for comment were not successful.

Heiltsuk Nation divers were able to capture photos under the wreck of the Nathan E. Stewart in November, 2016. The tug ran aground, spilling an estimated 100,000 litres of diesel in the waters near Bella Bella, B.C. (Heiltsuk Nation/April Bencze)

Nathan E. Stewart sinking

Last May, the board made similar fatigue awareness recommendations for vessel operators and crew members in its report on the sinking of the Nathan E. Stewart, a tug that spilled about 110,000 litres of diesel into the water off B.C.'s Central Coast.

The board highlighted employee fatigue in its annual 2018 watch report as a major safety hazard in the marine, rail and air transport industries.

"What the investigations are finding is that fatigue is not well recognized and one of our recommendations is to provide some recognition and awareness about fatigue," said Budden. "In a lot of cases, [crews] don't think they are fatigued. They don't feel tired but then they fall asleep."

Narrow stretch of water

He said the Ocean Monarch accident happened in the Inside Passage, a narrow stretch of water in which vessel operators are required to be on alert.

"Where he went aground is some of the narrowest water that we have on the Inside Passage," said Budden. "It completely reduces the margin for error. If you do happen to have a mechanical difficulty or fall asleep, you don't have much time before you are going to hit the beach."

After the Transportation Safety Board's investigation, the operator of the vessel installed a navigational watch alarm on the bridge of the Ocean Monarch and ordered that all alarms be enabled and monitored at all times.

New safe operating procedures were also developed and implemented, the board says.