Lift-boat mishap has a curious cause

The investigation into a marine incident last week that left Houma without power for close to an hour is still in progress, but a Coast Guard official says an unusual contributing factor will be included in his report once it is done.

The liftboat Lafayette, owned by Alliance Offshore, tore through elevated powerlines spanning the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 15, according to information gathered so far for the Coast Guard report, resulting in the blackout. The 113-foot liftboat’s three upward-extending legs are 175-feet tall. The powerlines are 90 feet above the ICW’s surface. The vessel was in about 15 feet of water.

A liftboat is a vessel that can raise itself above the surface after its legs are secured to the water bottom, and is often used for oil and gas exploration as well as related construction.

Coast Guard Chief Warrant Officer Quinn Quaglino, who is conducting the investigation with colleague Shawn Bailey, a marine inspector, said one factor contributing to the incident was the vessel captain’s unfamiliarity with the area. The captain was trying to enter Bayou LaCarpe so that he could warm-stack the Lafayette, Quaglino said. Warm-stacking is the practice of laying up a vessel – tying it idle – with a minimal crew on board to maintain its systems and provide maintenance.

The Lafayette, the investigation has revealed, would not ordinarily have warm-stacked in the Houma area. But berths for stacking are scarce and so the captain, who has not been publicly identified, ended up navigating waters with which he is not familiar.

“If the industry wasn’t slowed down they would not have been there,” Quaglino said.

David Rabalais, director of the Port of Terrebonne, was contacted by The Times and asked how much of a problem declining dock space is for vessels plying local waters.

“More thought should be given to the situation we are in right now,” Rabalais said. “The whole picture is we have got more boats out there that need places to tie up, to be stacked, and there is not enough room.”

The Lafayette had come up from Leeville, and should have made its appointed dockside in daylight. But according to Quaglino, the captain said he caught a bridge curfew – a time when marine traffic needing to go through drawbridges is halted while expected heavy land traffic proceeds.

That delayed progress to the turnoff into Bayou LaCarpe until after 6 pm. The Lafayette was negotiating a 150 degree turn, Quaglino said, and the legs made contact with the power line.

“The cables snapped,” Quaglino said. “Some fell on the deck of the Lafayette, near where the spud was, and the others fell right along the line of the bank right there.”

Why the obstruction was not noticed on charts – electronic or otherwise – has not yet been established. But some local mariners said in interviews – during which they requested anonymity – that there are any number of reasons why that could be the case, including software not properly updated in electronic navigation programs. There are no indications of such a situation in this case, however. And the power lines are referenced in books a master would keep on board a vessel for emergency navigation tips. The powerlines pre-date removal of a railroad trestle that once spanned the waters near that location.

Local attorneys who handle maritime matters took a hard line when asked about the incident, noting that the master of a vessel is required to be prepared for navigating unfamiliar areas, and questioned the validity of the oilfield slowdown as a contributing factor.

No injuries were reported on the vessel. After power was restored, repair work continued the next day.

If fault is determined to lie with the captain in such a circumstance, Quaglino said, the usual cite would be for careless operation.

But as of Monday that determination had not yet been made.

Quaglino said there were other issues that contributed as well.

“Visibility in the black of night along with backlights from the land and docks are always factors for any mariner,” he said. “Because of the reduced visibility at night, it is tougher for mariner’s to assess the risks of collision and alision.” •

Terrebonne lift-boat