Towing vessel pulled stricken cruise ship

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Last week began in routine fashion for Capt. Willie Preatto and the towing vessel Roland A. Falgout’s crew, who went about routine tasks as the vessel gently bobbed beside a Port Fourchon dock.

By week’s end they were heroes, part of the team that brought a foundering cruise ship and over 4,000 souls on board to a safe berth in Mobile, Ala., as passengers cheered and the world watched. That is how a humble but powerful tug operated by a Lafourche Parish company, Global Towing Services of Larose, entered the annals of maritime history.

“I was watching the news about 11 p.m. Tuesday and they asked us to crank up,” said Preatto, a veteran mariner who is a native of Lafitte, but now calls Georgia home.

Following equipment and safety checks, Preatto guided the vessel out of Fourchon at about 1 a.m. Wednesday, and onto the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

The Triumph, an 893-foot ship on a cruise from Galveston, was disabled after fire broke out at 5:30 a.m. in an engine room Feb. 10, about 150 miles off the Yucatan Peninsula. There were no injuries. But after the engines shut down, air conditioning and sewage functions were disabled in portions of the ship. The Triumph, according to interviews with marine towing coordinators, drifted about 90 miles north before a Mexican tug, the Dabhol, held her stationery while awaiting further assistance.

The Resolve Pioneer, a 207-foot emergency response tug, was already headed for the Triumph from Mobile when Preatto got the call. Timothy Robling was serving as the relief captain. Mike Medierus was the engineer and Selvin Garcia was the seaman.

“When we left Fourchon we had a northwest wind 15-20 knots, with 3-5 foot seas, it got worse,” said Preatto, who described the trip out as “bumpy, real bumpy.”

Waves broke on the sides of the Roland A. Falgout.

“We were heading across almost in a trough, but not quite in the trough,” Preatto said. “They said we were going to assist in the tow.”

The game-plan, once the mission was staged, was for the Resolve Pioneer to take the lead, pulling the big ship from its winched 4,000 cable, attached to a bridle that was sent up to the cruise ship’s crew.

The Roland A. Falgout arrived at the Carnival ship’s side at 6 p.m. Wednesday night, Preatto said.

Preparations were made as the Resolve Pioneer took its place in front. Farhat Imam, Resolve Marine’s Chief Operating Officer and himself a master mariner, coordinated the effort from his company’s Tampa headquarters. The Resolve Pioneer, the Roland A. Falgout and the Carnival ship kept in communication with their VHF radios, on Channel 10.

To help tie the Louisiana tug Medierus, wearing a hardhat, safety vest, gloves and steel-toed shoes, caught a braided line, 4 or 6 inches thick tossed from the cruise ship and made it fast to a bit on the tug’s bow. Other work needed to be done on both tugs. Preatto said the passengers on the cruise ship were showing their gratitude.

“They had a lot of people putting signs on the back of the ship,” Preatto said. “They were waving and clapping and cheering and all that, at the windows waving at us, waving signs that said thank God, that someone was their to save them. I never had that happen.

Valentine’s Day was 30 minutes old when the Resolve Pioneer began chugging toward Mobile, with the Triumph behind it and the Roland A. Falgout bringing up the rear.

They proceeded that way for nearly 12 hours. At one point in the voyage a Resolve supply boat anchored about a half mile from the approaching waterborne convoy, which continued without a pause as two Coast Guard helicopters ferried provisions and also a generator. Generally, Preatto said, they traveled about 5 mph, with a noticeable chop.

“We had to keep the ship straight,” Preatto said, explaining that if the cruise ship would swing to starboard or port there would be additional strain on the front tow line, which could create problems.

With his hands on the small wooden wheel, Preatto closely monitored the ship’s movements and his own vessel’s behavior, backing down on speed when he saw it necessary. The Coast Guard Cutter Vigorou escorted the ship and the boats during the towing operation.

“When the ship was going from side to side, I was backing down on my end, so the ship would slow down swinging,” Preatto said, keeping his engines at about 600 RPM.

It was Preatto’s first time to ever be involved with a cruise ship tow.

That makes the task of towing a ship like the Triumph especially challenging, said local mariners.

“Once under tow you have a lot of responsibility,” said Cory Keif, a manager at Crosby Tugs in Larose, and a vessel master. “A cruise ship with passengers not trained to be at sea, that’s a different game altogether. Some companies would have reluctance to even want to do these kinds of jobs … These are not crew members, these are passengers. They are not trained or capable of enduring all of this.”

Keif said the reasons behind Carnival’s decision to bring passengers to Mobile, rather than evacuate them at sea, were obvious to him.

“I don’t know how many man overboard or abandon ship drills I have had, I probably could abandon any ship I was on,” he said. “These passengers probably half of them when they had the safety orientation forgot that the first trip to the bar.”

Preatto is in all ways an experienced mariner, whose time on the water began when he was 11-years-old, on board a shrimp boat owned by his father, William Preatto Jr., a sing-rig lugger with a tin stern cabin.

“I’ve been on the water my whole life and I’ll probably die here,” recalled Preatto, who bought his own shrimp boat when he was 18-years-old, but was eventually drawn to marine service. The 66-year-old Preatto spent 30 years working for Tidewater, and has piloted the Roland A. Falgout for 9 years.

The company he works for was founded in 1965 by the late Roland Falgout – for whom the tug is named – and his brother Wiley Falgout. Their five tugs range from 3,000 to 9,000 horsepower. Wiley Falgout followed the vessel’s progress, and said he was pleased that his tug was able to assist.

After spending most of the darkness in the open waters of the Gulf the convoy headed into a mile-wide channel called a safety fairway. Traveling in the fairway, mariners say, is a way to avoid conflicts with oil and gas pipelines and the traffic they generate. After 52 miles on the fairway, the vessels stopped at the sea buoy that marked the final 38 miles of the trip. At that point a Mobile Bar Pilot – who routinely takes over control of any cruise ship entering the port – was delivered to the Triumph and took his place at the bridge. Another pilot boarded the lead tug. Two Mobile tugboats also assisted.

Shortly after leaving the buoy, Preatto heard some radio chatter that made his ears perk up.

What he learned was that a problem had occurred with the lead tow.

In interviews, Resolve Marine’s Imam said an order was given to speed the lead boat up from 5 mph to about 7.5. Shortly after that, he said, the big ship swayed, possibly from a cross-current, and the big towing cable snapped off a pin from the winch assembly.

“At about Noon they took us off the stern, they took my line off,” said Preatto, who was told the Roland A. Falgout would have to come around the starboard side of the cruise ship and take over the tow. “We knew they said they had a pin that was stuck in the upright position.”

The Roland A. Falgout’s line was payed out from its winch, with Robling at the wheel and Preatto observing outside.

Medierus and Garcia manned the winch. Crew members on the Triumph lowered a bridle to the tug and its two crewmen attached their cable to it. After safety checks were made the Roland A. Falgout’s crew members secured all safety lines.

With the new towing configuration, the Cajun tugboat moved forward, with no further problems, arriving at the Mobile ship terminal around 11:00 p.m.

It took Preatto, Robling and the crew about a half hour to rig down and prepare for the trip back to Fourchon.

“Everybody was calling us, they all said they seen us on TV, “ Preatto said.

His wife of 43 years, Sheila, had called as well. “She said it was good I made sure to get those people to the dock safe.”

Willie Preatto