Pilot Fatigue Cited in Bulk Carrier Drift


According to a Marine Accident Brief released by The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), bulk carrier Shandong Fu En struck Dock1 during high-water conditions on April 6, 2018. 

What happened?

The vessel struck Dock 1 of the Ergon-St. James Terminal wharf on the Lower Mississippi River during high-water conditions while turning around to head downriver with the assistance of three tugboats. 

The Shandong Fu En, loaded with coal, had just departed the Convent Marine Terminal wharf, located across the river. 

Any pollution or damage reported?

No pollution or injuries were reported, but the vessel and the wharf sustained $6.25 million in damage.

Probable cause

The NTSB determined that the probable cause of the contact was the fatigued pilot’s misjudgment of a downstream turning maneuver during high-water conditions.

  • No mechanical issues were reported with the tugboats that would have limited the pilot’s use of these assets to safely turn the vessel around in the waterway.
  • No issues reported with the bulker’s steering or engines. 
  • After the bulk carrier came off the dock, the river current quickly began to move the vessel toward the right descending bank and downriver. 
  • The towboats could have been positioned differently, and the full-astern engine orders could have been executed earlier to keep the bulk carrier from drifting.
  • Despite his experience, the pilot’s 96-hour work/rest history showing he complied with regulations but had only four hours of sleep in the 36-hour time span before the accident. 
  • The pilot’s limited sleep and the fact that he was nearing the end of an eight-hour shift increased the likelihood that fatigue affected his judgment.


The NTSB notes that even for experienced pilots, fatigue can affect performance in various ways, such as increased reaction times, reduced alertness and difficulty processing information. It can, therefore, degrade a person’s ability to stay alert and attentive to the demands of safely controlling a vessel.

NOBRA (New Orleans and Baton Rouge Association) board of Examiners instituted new procedures to mitigate the risk associated with operating deep-draft vessels in high-water conditions of the Mississippi River. These procedures include:

  • Increasing the sleep opportunities for pilots by
    • Lengthening the time between turns from 8 to 12 hours 
    • Reducing the work hours for attended moored vessels from 8 to 6 hours per shift.
  • Limiting pilot transits and mooring operation to daylight hours.

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Source: NTSB


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