Performing a Downstreaming Maneuver in High-Water Condition Sinks Vessel



About 0752 local time on April 19, 2016, the towing vessel Ricky J Leboeuf capsized and later sank while its crew tried to remove a barge from a fleeting area in the San Jacinto River near Channelview, Texas.

Death, Dispossession, and Damage

Four of the five crew members survived, but one deckhand died. The vessel sustained an estimated $900,000 in damage, rendering it a constructive total loss. Nearly 100 gallons of diesel oil, lubricating oil, and other contaminants were released into the river when the vessel sank.

Warnings Sent Out

During the month of April, the San Jacinto River was at an unusually high water level due to rainfall, and the Coast Guard had warned mariners about the risks associated with vessel operations, including increased river current velocity. The Ricky J Leboeuf’s operating company also issued advisories, which included restrictions on “downstreaming”, a maneuver in which a towing vessel moves with the river current to approach and land on another object such as a barge or a dock.

Risks of Downstreaming

Downstreaming is used in barge fleets to remove barges from the upstream end of a tier of barges. As a towing vessel approaches a barge, the vessel must face the barge squarely; that is, the flat bow of the towing vessel must be parallel to the flat bow or stern of the barge as they meet up. If the towing vessel meets the barge at an angle with a strong enough current, the towing vessel may be turned sideways and become pinned against the barge. Water may rise up onto the deck and enter the vessel through open doors, windows, hatches, and ventilation systems, thus causing rapid downflooding, capsizing, and sinking.

What went wrong?

The Ricky J Leboeuf was en route to pick up two tank barges from a fleet area when the accident occurred. Despite the company’s instruction not to downstream, at 0750, the Ricky J Leboeuf approached the fleet area using the downstreaming maneuver. The relief captain, who was operating the vessel, tried to pivot the Ricky J Leboeuf to square it up on the barge; however, the current was at an angle to the vessel’s stern, causing the vessel to pivot to starboard. As the Ricky J Leboeuf turned to starboard, its portside hull-fendering impacted the sterns of several stationary barges.

Deckhand Left Behind

At 0752, the force of the river current acting on the Ricky J Leboeuf’s starboard-side hull, combined with the force applied above the water line on the vessel’s port side from its contact with the barges, caused the vessel to heel to starboard. Water then rapidly entered the vessel through two open doors on the main deck, flooding the hull. Consequently, the vessel rolled onto its starboard side and partially submerged, with just a small portion of its port bow remaining above water. All crewmembers except for the deckhand moved to the port bow, which was still above water, and were eventually rescued by another towing vessel. The deck-hand, who had been forward on the main deck, was last seen trying to swim toward the bow. The Ricky J Leboeuf ultimately sank completely.

Relief Captain Ignored Protocol

The operating company’s SMS stated that downstreaming during certain river conditions was prohibited without permission from the company port captain and required vessel crews to seek assistance from other towing vessels when performing the maneuver. Additionally, the SMS required that all watertight doors, hatches, and other openings be properly secured before attempting the maneuver. According to interviews with other crew members, the relief captain was fully aware of the company’s restrictions on downstreaming in the prevailing conditions, yet he decided to downstream despite the risks and without consulting the vessel’s captain or the company port captain.

Probable Cause

The NTSB determined that the probable cause of the capsizing and sinking of the towing vessel Ricky J Leboeuf was the relief captain’s ill-advised decision to perform a downstreaming maneuver in high-water conditions without implementing the operating company’s risk mitigation strategies or other safeguards.

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Source: NTSB