The incident

On October 13, 2017, at 0705 local time, the uninspected fishing vessel 'Southern Bell' grounded outside of the east jetty for the entrance to the Sabine Pass Channel, an outlet for the Sabine and Neches Rivers into the Gulf of Mexico. The vessel heeled over on its port side and began flooding through open doors to the engine room and accommodation space before sinking.

The Captain and two crew members entered the water and were rescued by a Good Samaritan vessel nearby without suffering any injuries. A light oil sheen and debris were later observed. The vessel, valued at an estimated $519,000, was determined to be unsalvageable.

Probable cause

The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of the grounding and subsequent sinking of the Southern Bell was the captain’s decision to leave the wheelhouse unattended, while still making way as the vessel approached the entrance channel to Sabine Pass.

Analysis

Audio captured by VTS Port Arthur confirmed that between 0644 and 0646 one of the pilots on the Hyundai Princepia attempted to hail the Southern Bell unsuccessfully several times using VHF radio. These attempts to contact the vessel occurred about 20 minutes before the Southern Bell grounded at 0705 outside of the east jetty near buoy R “20”. Thus, if the captain was in the wheelhouse at that time, he either did not hear the call or chose not to respond.

It is likely that the captain did not respond to the VHF radio calls because he had already vacated the wheelhouse and either was walking aft or already in the lazarette addressing the steering gear failure at the time of the pilot’s calls. However, leaving the wheelhouse without calling one of the other crewmembers to keep lookout was a poor decision. Moreover, leaving the transmission in forward gear only compounded the situation, considering the vessel’s approach to the Sabine Pass Channel.

The captain was operating the vessel for over 24 hours. While fatigue may have been a factor in the captain’s decision-making, investigators did not have sufficient information to evaluate his work/rest profile in the days preceding the accident.

Regardless, the captain’s actions not only placed himself and the deckhands on board the Southern Bell at risk, but also could have compromised the safety of those individuals serving on vessels operating nearby, such as the Hyundai Princepia, NTSB underlined.

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