On June 9, 2021, about 0915 local time, the fishing vessel Sage Catherine Lane was transiting outbound on the St. Marys River, south of Cumberland Island, Georgia, when the vessel grounded on the north jetty of the St. Marys Entrance and, shortly afterward, began to flood.1 The crew of three abandoned the vessel and were rescued by the crew of a nearby Good Samaritan vessel. The Sage Catherine Lane later sank; about 2,300 gallons of fuel, engine oil, and hydraulic oil were on board, with roughly 800 gallons recovered. A sheen was observed following the breakup of the vessel, 3 days later. One minor injury to a crewmember was reported. Loss of the vessel was estimated at $1 million.
We determined that the probable cause of the grounding of the fishing vessel Sage Catherine Lane was the captain’s decision to leave the wheelhouse unattended as the vessel transited the St. Marys Entrance on autopilot, leaving insufficient time to respond when the autopilot failed and caused the vessel to go off the set course.
Safe Navigation with Autopilot
Autopilot use does not relieve the operator of responsibility to conduct a proper navigation watch. Use of autopilot should not be a justification for an operator to leave the wheelhouse or bridge unattended in confined waters. Navigating in channels and harbors requires quicker reaction times due to traffic, currents encountered, and frequent course changes, and more rudder due to slower speeds. Therefore, autopilot use is often discouraged or prohibited in a harbor entrance or narrow channel.