Collision of Tankship Elka Apollon With Containership MSC Nederland Houston Ship Channel

Upper Galveston Bay, Texas
October 29, 2011

NTSB Number: MAR-12-02
NTIS Number: PB2012-916402
Adopted: September 25, 2012
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Executive Summary

The Elka Apollon, a Greek-flag tankship, was outbound on the Houston Ship Channel for Freeport, Texas, on the morning of October 29, 2011. The MSC Nederland, a Panamanian flag containership, was inbound on the same waterway to offload cargo at the Bayport Container Terminal at the western end of the Bayport Ship Channel. The pilots on the two deep draft, oceangoing vessels agreed by radio that their ships would meet and pass one another just south of the intersection of these two shipping channels.

The pilot on the inbound MSC Nederland planned to let the Elka Apollon pass before turning to port into the Bayport channel. The pilot conning the Elka Apollon ordered a series of rudder commands as the vessel transited the intersection of the two channels and approached the MSC Nederland. A towboat, the Mr. Earl, under way in the vicinity and pushing an empty barge, was exiting the Bayport channel as the Elka Apollon was passing. As the distance between the Elka Apollon and the MSC Nederland closed, the Elka Apollon crossed the centerline of the Houston Ship Channel and subsequently struck the port side of the MSC Nederland.

No injuries resulted from the collision. The impact caused structural damage to both vessels, and three damaged containers from the MSC Nederland fell onto the deck of the Elka Apollon. The collision also tore off the MSC Nederland's rescue boat and set it adrift in the waterway. Damage was estimated at $1.5 million for the Elka Apollon and $1.3 million for the MSC Nederland.

Probable Cause

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determines that the probable cause of the collision between the Elka Apollon and the MSC Nederland was the failure of the pilot conning the Elka Apollon to appropriately respond to changes in bank effect forces as the vessel transited the Bayport flare, causing the vessel to sheer across the channel and collide with the MSC Nederland. Contributing to the accident was the combination of the narrow waterway, bank effects at the Bayport flare, and traffic density at the time, which increased the challenges in a waterway with a limited margin for error.

Safety issues identified in this accident include the following:

  • Piloting challenges in the Houston Ship Channel. Pilots in this waterway face a variety of significant challenges particular to the Houston Ship Channel. These include the many large vessels and tows that transit the relatively narrow channel, limited vessel maneuvering room, and variations in the waterway's configuration that result in changing hydrodynamic forces these vessels encounter in the vicinity of its intersections. Mariners also must set optimal vessel speeds that allow for timely transit while maintaining safe passage given the channel's limited margin for error.
  • Vessel separation. Insufficient distance between vessels when they turn, pass, and overtake one another near intersections can create unsafe situations. In these areas, waterway management measures such as required separation between vessels can help to minimize marine casualties. In addition, communication between vessels approaching one another—and with any authority responsible for managing vessel traffic separation—is essential to safe passage. Such communication is particularly important when vessels will pass closely or meet in a busy or complex area.
  • Lack of identification of U.S. Coast Guard precautionary areas. The Coast Guard designated 14 precautionary areas along the Houston Ship Channel and vicinity in which vessels are required to navigate with particular care. These areas are defined and described geographically in the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations and the U.S. Coast Pilot. One of these, the Bayport Channel Precautionary Area, was the site of the collision between the Elka Apollon and the MSC Nederland. The NTSB investigated another accident in 2011 which occurred in the Bolivar Roads Precautionary Area, also located very near the Houston Ship Channel. However, none of these 14 precautionary areas is identified on Houston Ship Channel navigation charts, and mariners may not be aware that these areas exist.

As a result of this investigation, the NTSB issues two new recommendations to the Coast Guard regarding precautionary areas.

Recommendations

As a result of this investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board makes the following recommendations:

To the U.S. Coast Guard:

Develop and implement a policy to ensure adequate separation between vessels operating in the Bayport Channel and Bolivar Roads Precautionary Areas and any other similarly configured precautionary areas in the Houston Ship Channel. (M-12-6)

Graphically delineate precautionary areas on appropriate Houston Ship Channel nautical charts so they are readily identifiable to mariners. (M-12-7)

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