Captain’s sleep inertia led to barge tow striking lock gate

April 5, 2022

The towboat Ava Claire under way before the casualty. Photo: General Marine Services

A captain assuming a watch immediately after waking led to a tow striking a lock gate in the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, the National Transportation Safety Board said in Marine Investigation Report 22/09 released today.

On the morning of March 22, 2021, the captain awoke after 4.5 hours of sleep to assume the watch early from the vessel’s pilot. The pilot offered to take the tow through the Leland Bowman Lock, but the captain declined and took the helm about five minutes before maneuvering the tow into the lock. According to a policy contained in the vessel’s operations manual, a change of watch was not to occur during “a critical move,” such as maneuvering into a lock.

The two struck the lock gate less than 30 minutes after the captain woke up. At the time, the captain was likely experiencing the effects of sleep inertia — the temporary feeling of grogginess felt immediately upon waking up. According to the report, as the master of the Ava Claire, the captain should have been familiar with the vessel operating policies and procedures and should not have taken the watch. However, his decision to take the watch may also have been the result of impairment caused by sleep inertia.

Marine Investigation Report 22/09 is available online.

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