On May 2016, the US-flagged lake freighter (laker) Roger Blough ran aground near the Gros Cap Reefs Light, off Sault Sainte Marie, Ontario, Canada. There were no injuries and no pollution reported, but the vessel sustained $4.5 million in damage to its hull and cargo system. The US NTSB issued an investigation report on the accident, providing a description of what happened.The incident
On May 26, 2016, the Roger Blough departed Superior, Wisconsin, en route to Conneaut, Ohio, a voyage of 890 miles. The vessel was loaded with a cargo of 45,093 tons of taconite iron ore pellets. The vessel’s intended route, which was programmed into the ship’s electronic chart precise integrated navigation system (ECPINS), closely followed the Lake Carriers’ Association (LCA) recommended downbound trackline for Lake Superior.
On the same day, the Canadian-flagged laker Tim S. Dool, in ballast, lost all electrical power and propulsion approximately 65 miles northwest of Whitefish Point in eastern Lake Superior (about 89.5 miles from Gros Cap Reefs Light). Two tugboats, the Anglian Lady and the W. I. Scott Purvis, were contracted tow the Tim S. Dool to a repair facility in Sault Sainte Marie, Ontario, Canada. The lead tug, Anglian Lady, took the Tim S. Dool under tow and began transiting at 5 knots.
At 1130 the next day, when the Roger Blough was about 24.5 miles from Gros Cap Reefs Light, the second mate and an able seaman took over the laker’s normal navigational watch as deck watch officer and wheelsman, respectively. The second mate held a merchant mariner credential for unlimited mate on Great Lakes and inland waters, with a first-class pilot’s endorsement, and had sailed on the lakes for 17 years in both licensed and unlicensed positions.
During the watch turnover, the second mate was informed that the Tim S. Dool was being towed by the Anglian Lady and was about 5 miles from Gros Cap Reefs Light, making a speed of about 5 mph. Fog was prevalent throughout the area, and thus fog signals were sounded and an extra lookout was posted on the bow.
At 1138, the Roger Blough second mate called Vessel Traffic Service (VTS) St. Marys River (SOO Traffic) on VHF radio about one-hour before entering the VTS area to make a mandatory voice position report (pre-call). VTS St. Marys River advised him that the Anglian Lady tow was about 4.9 miles from Gros Cap Reefs Light. The VTS watchstander told the second mate that he did not know if the Roger Blough would be able to overtake the tow.
At 1211, the Roger Blough second mate hailed the Anglian Lady master and proposed to overtake the tow. The Anglian Lady master agreed. Soon after this communication, the downbound laker Sam Laud, following behind the Roger Blough, hailed the Anglian Lady and proposed to overtake the tow in the same way as the Roger Blough.
At 1230, the second mate directed the wheelsman to make a course change from 148 degrees to 140 degrees, per the LCA recommended downbound trackline, and to “hold the red buoy [left] side of the channel” in anticipation of passing the Anglian Lady tow. The wheelsman took the steering control out of autopilot, made the course change in hand steering, and then placed the steering back in to autopilot. About this time, the fog dissipated and visibility improved.
The Roger Blough was making full “sea speed” of 113 revolutions per minute (RPM), approximately 14.5 mph, and was about 10 miles behind the Anglian Lady tow, which was continuing to make a speed of about 5 mph. All vessels were on the LCA recommended downbound route toward the St. Marys River navigation channel.
The master of the Roger Blough held a merchant mariner credential for unlimited master on Great Lakes and inland waters, with a first-class pilot’s endorsement, had sailed on the lakes for 28 years in both licensed and unlicensed positions, and had been the vessel’s permanent master for seven years. Crewmembers told investigators and the second mate acknowledged that the master had given verbal instructions to the mates to reduce speed to 100 RPM (about 13.5 mph speed through the water) when the vessel was two miles north of Gros Cap Reefs Light. Then, when the vessel was abreast of Gros Cap Reefs Light, the RPM were to be reduced to 90 RPM (about 11.5 mph).
At 1232, the second mate called the Anglian Lady and arrangements were confirmed for the Roger Blough to overtake the Anglian Lady and its tow in the Birch Point Course section of the St. Marys River. The Anglian Lady was to keep its tow to the right of the channel and the Roger Blough would pass on the left side of the channel. The second mate positioned the Roger Blough to enter the Birch Point Course lined-up on the far-left side of the channel. Two minutes later, the W. I. Scott Purvis met the Anglian Lady tow near Gros Cap Reefs Light and made-up to the Tim S. Dool’s stern.
At 1305, the master of the Roger Blough and an observing captain entered the wheelhouse. While the observing captain went to the aft port side of the wheelhouse to get a cup of coffee, the master went to use the ship’s phone on the aft starboard side to confirm delivery of provisions as the vessel passed Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan.
At 1310, the Anglian Lady and its tow were about a third of the way down the Birch Point Course channel, between green buoys 39 and 37, moving slowly from the center to the right side of the channel. The tow was on a course of about 140 degrees at a speed of about 6.1 mph.
At the same time, according to ECPINS and automatic identification system (AIS) data, the Roger Blough’s centerline was on the outer edge of the left side of the channel, with its port side outside the channel. The vessel was on a course of 140 degrees true at a speed through the water of 14.4 mph when the its speed began to slow. At 1312, the Roger Blough passed over a charted 30-foot depth curve near the Gros Cap Reefs. About this time, the vessel hit the bottom.
The Roger Blough’s heading shifted about 8 degrees to port as the vessel continued to move forward for two minutes, dragging the hull an additional ship-length over the reef’s bedrock until the vessel came to rest.
The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of the grounding of the lake freighter Roger Blough was the second mate’s failure to use all navigational resources to determine the ship’s position as it approached shallow water near Gros Cap Reefs. Contributing to the accident was inadequate monitoring of the vessel by Vessel Traffic Service (VTS) St. Marys River.