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I’m always interested in what causes boating accidents. A couple of years ago, a 43′ Trawler rolled over on its side and sank after passing a tow on the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway. The four passengers aboard swam to the safety of the dinghy that was being towed. The captain reported the boat rolled in less than 10 seconds and the boat sank in 5 minutes. So what caused the Trawler to roll over and sink?

There are few published facts regarding the cause. We do know there was a motorcycle on the roof, which could explain why the dinghy was being towed. We also know there were 4 people on the flybridge which explains why no one was trapped inside the vessel. For those not familiar with the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, Tenn-Tom Waterwayit is a 234 mile man-made waterway that extends from the Tennessee River to the Black Warrior-Tombigbee River system. In many areas it is very narrow and you must pay attention to other boaters and tow traffic.

On the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, a motorboat will communicate with the tow captain for permission to pass and on what side. If the Trawler and the tow met on a sharp bend and the captain of the Trawler was not aware of the tow, it was too late. If the Trawler and the tow were both on the outside of the turn where the water is deepest, the captain of the Trawler would be moving close to shore and it would be too late to change sides. Concerned he might run aground, it would have been natural for the Trawler’s captain to immediately turn sharply behind the tow and cross the tow’s wake.

Tows generate very small waves beside the barges but have a very high wave directly behind as all the water displaced by the barges and tow boat fills back in. The wave created by the tow would have caused the Trawler to tip away from the tow. With the motorcycle and the four people on the bridge creating a heavy load on top, the boat would tip even further. One reported that this 43′ Trawler cannot right itself from a roll of over 65 degrees. It was also suspected that the stabilizers were operating at the time. The rapid current of water behind the tow filling in the “hole” would be going in the opposite direction to the Trawler. The stabilizers, instead of correcting the roll, would make it worse.

The lessons learned — Always be aware of traffic on narrow rivers and never cross the wake behind a tow closer than ¼ mile. Use your VHF radio to announce your position before entering bends or get an Automatic Identification System. AIS shows the position, heading, speed and name of any tow within 5-10 miles whether you can see it or not. By law, vessels over 300 tons must have a Class A unit that transmits their position via VHF radio. Your AIS will show the tow’s position, heading, speed and most importantly, its name. You can then call the tow boat by name and get permission to pass.

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4 Responses to Rolled Over and Sank

  1. We had a situation where our sailboat was washed up on West Palm beach, Florida. Our keel got caught behind the reef and we hired a boat towing company to get her loose. In the contract that we signed it had in small print “binding arbitration”. The whole thing was a big mess for years and totally exhausting. That’s really why I don’t want to see other people go through what we had too.

  2. John Clayman says:

    Thank you all for your comments. I try to make it a habit to learn from maritime casualties. Randy, you mentioned that the trawler which sank had a range of positive stability of just 65 degrees. Would you mind sharing the make and model of the trawler? Thank you.

  3. Captain JP says:

    Great article Randy. I have to agree with you. Remember that a tugboat with a tow in a narrow channel is technically considered a vessel restricted in its ability to manuever and common sense dictates that a prudent skipper on a pleasure boat should stay out of the way (remember we are playing, they are working) and if we are in any doubt we should contact the tug’s skipper on VHF radio to prevent any uncertainty of a safe passage. As a professional captain I am well aware of the rules but I also use common sense when ‘playing’ on my pleasure boat and stay out of the way of commercial vessels.
    Having said that, in my opinion, it’s sounds as if the trawler was improperly loaded and manuevered in such a way that they ended up broadside to the wake created by the barge.
    And please don’t get me wrong, I understand its always easy to critisize other people when you weren’t in their shoes at the time. But the truth is I am always sad to hear of boats capsizing or any other unfortunate accidents and I’m very sorry for the owner of this trawler because I understand accidents can happen.

  4. Bob Keim says:

    I take exception to your statement, “a motorboat will communicate with the tow captain for permission to pass and on what side,” If you are the down bound or overtaking boat, it is your responsibility to propose the manner of safe passage. If the tow doesn’t like it, they should then notify you.

    Further, on narrow bodies of water, it is a good practice to announce your boat name, direction of travel and land marks. In practice, you should always make that announcement as you exit each lock on the Tenn-Tom. If the river is narrow, you should make it as you cross under each bridge.

    Particular care should be given when going upstream immediately below dams because the current and narrowness of the river creates big control issues for tows.

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