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Cause of trawler capsize unclear

Moonstruck, a DeFever 43 trawler, capsized and sank Sept. 30 while meeting a tug with barges head-on at an “S” curve on the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway north of Pickensville, Ala.

Southern Marine Towing refloated the DeFever and transported it to a marina in Pickensville, Ala.

Built in 1979 and registered to David Harris, of Pearl, Miss., the DeFever was downbound just below mile marker 317 when it encountered the 85-footer Chippewa pushing nine barges, says Capt. Shane O’Neal, owner of Southern Marine Towing, which refloated the trawler and towed it 10 miles to Pirate’s Marina Cove in Pickensville.

Exactly why Moonstruck capsized remains unclear. Joe Simonton, a salvor working out of Pirate’s Marina Cove who helped O’Neal raise the boat, says Harris told him he doesn’t really know how it capsized and that “it all happened so quickly.” Harris declined an interview while the accident remains under Coast Guard investigation.

O’Neal, who talked to Harris, deduced from that conversation and from his own experience on heavily trafficked inland waters what might have happened.
“The tug was in the curve,” he says. The helmsman revved up Chippewa’s 2,500-hp power plant to make the turn, its massive screw pulling so much water back and past the stern that it sucked the water out from under Moonstruck as the two passed port to port, O’Neal says.
Moonstruck could have hit bottom, or in any case lost stability, and Chippewa’s stern wave — or a series of them, perhaps 4 to 6 feet high — hit the heeling trawler, knocking it onto its starboard side, he says. “[Harris] said it happened in about 15 seconds,” O’Neal says. “He lost rudder control and it went straight over. He just had time to say mayday one time over the mike and he was swimming.”
O’Neal suspects the trawler’s skipper tried to give the tow a wide berth and wound up on the edge of the channel in shallower water, where the tug and barges’ stern wave would have been bigger. He says Moonstruck — an ocean passagemaker with a full-displacement hull and 4.4-foot draft — sank just outside the channel in 9 feet of water; Simonton thought it lay on its side just inside the channel at a depth of 11 to 12 feet because 2 to 3 feet of the boat’s side deck was visible above the water. The navigation channel on this stretch of the Tenn-Tom runs 12 to 13 feet, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.
Harris and three others — a female friend, his brother and his brother’s wife, according to Simonton — were on the DeFever’s flybridge, O’Neal says, and a small motorcycle weighing 365 pounds was strapped to the top. O’Neal says Harris and his party were dumped into the water, along with a dinghy, which he says floated off the boat. Simonton says early reports were that the dinghy was in tow.
In any case, the four climbed into the dinghy. Meanwhile, Chippewa’s helmsman, who saw what happened, called Branch’N Out, an Endeavour TrawlerCat 36 that had passed the tug and barges a mile ahead of Moonstruck, and asked it to pick up the shaken crew. Branch’N Out’s skipper, Jay Branch, took the four 10 miles downriver and dropped them off at Pirate’s Marina Cove.
O’Neal says Harris, who has owned Moonstruck for 14 years and just finished a restoration, plans to restore it again. Although an estimated $100,000 in water damage probably leaves Moonstruck a total loss for insurance purposes, structurally the vessel appeared sound, he says. “There was no hull damage,” says O’Neal. “It’s a pretty boat. The inside of it is gorgeous.”
The engines were pickled at Pirate’s Marina Cove, so they probably can be salvaged, he says. O’Neal was hired to tow the vessel 105 miles up the Tenn-Tom to a marina in Luka, Miss., where, he says, Harris plans to fix up the boat.
Harris reportedly was a liveaboard on the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway and an experienced river cruiser. O’Neal says the Tenn-Tom is heavily trafficked by tugs and barges. “It’s the main channel coming out of Mobile Bay,” he says. “[Locals] know to stay away from the tugs. You stay as far clear as you can.”
However, a freak accident — a tug sucking water from beneath a nearby boat — is not unheard of. “Every now and again it does happen,” O’Neal says.
The water around a pushboat and barges is “extremely crazy and extremely dangerous,” agrees Nani Bhowmik, a hydraulic engineer for the Illinois State Water Survey at the University of Illinois in Champaign. Bhowmik has written scholarly papers on water flows around tugs and barges and their impact on rivers.
He says there are at least four zones around pushboats and barges that pose a danger to pleasure boats. First, the box-like barges pile up water at the bow. The water is released around the barges’ sides in an accelerated flow that creates wide swaths of swirling water that can pull a boat into the side of a barge.
Second, as the water from in front of the barges sweeps past their sides in large whirlpool-like swirls and as the tug’s enormous prop — or props — suck water from under the barges, an area of lower pressure in front of the barges sucks water away from the riverbanks. In a narrow river, the water level may drop three to five feet along the banks when a large phalanx of barges passes. A boat floating along the bank can suddenly be in the mud.
Most obvious, pushboats leave a trail of turbulent water hundreds of feet behind as their props blow an enormous jet of water into the “hole” that is left where the barges have displaced the water. This hole, now filling with a rush of turbulent water from the prop, is extremely dangerous. “You lose control and don’t know which direction the boat is going to turn,” Bhowmik says.
Lastly, the tow throws off bow and stern waves that can become quite large when they merge or roll through shallows.
Where Moonstruck was in the confused water around Chippewa and its barges is still under investigation. Simonton says that when passing a tow it’s important that boaters always point the bow into the tow’s bow and stern waves to avoid capsize.
“There are always two or three waves behind the first one,” he says.

See related article:
- Operating around tugs and barges

This article originally appeared in the January 2012 issue.