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Confusion over lights led to L.I. Sound sinking

C.G. faults mate helming a 92-foot sailboat that collided with a freighter

C.G. faults mate helming a 92-foot sailboat that collided with a freighter

Conditions were benign in the early morning hours of Sept. 20, 2006, with 2- to 3-foot seas and light winds, as the 92-foot sailing yacht Essence motorsailed west down Long Island Sound bound for Greenwich, Conn.

The 623-foot coal freighter Barkald had departed Bridgeport, Conn., around 2:30 a.m., and was headed east on the Sound, outbound for Halifax, Nova Scotia. Shortly after 4 a.m. the Barkald and Essence collided, with the sailboat sinking five miles north of Roanoke Point Shoals, off the north shore of Long Island near Riverhead, N.Y.

Two of the three crewmembers on board — Ian Robberts, 48, the boat’s captain, and mate Nardus “Blue” Bothma, 32, who was at the helm at the time — survived. Chef Gina Bortolotti, 29 — Bothma’s fiancée — did not. She drowned.

A Coast Guard investigation has determined that the primary cause of the accident was Bothma’s failure to correctly identify and interpret the navigation lights on the coal freighter and to take proper action to avoid a collision. Bothma was the only person awake on the Essence at the time of the collision, according to the Coast Guard. Contributing factors cited by the Coast Guard include the failure of both vessels to adequately determine that a risk of collision existed, and inadequate communications between the vessels as they approached each other.

“It was a clear night, and visibility was unlimited,” says Dawn Kallen, chief of the investigations division for Coast Guard Sector Long Island Sound. “The mate saw the freighter from more than 10 miles away.”

Investigators determined that each vessel’s nav lights and equipment were working properly, and alcohol and drug tests conducted on both crews were negative. Mechanical failure also was ruled out.

Essence had been leased to Quintess — an exclusive members-only vacation club based in Colorado — and Robberts, Bothma and Bortolotti were the hired crew. Robberts is a licensed captain; Bothma is not, according to Kallen. The yacht had departed Newport, R.I., Sept. 19 and reportedly was on its way to Greenwich for charter by Quintess members when the accident occurred.

Kallen says Essence’s navigation electronics included VHF radio, radar and GPS, and its autopilot wasn’t engaged at the time of collision. The Coast Guard was unsure whether the fiberglass vessel had a radar reflector. The Barkald was making about 14 knots and Essence about 8 knots just prior to the collision, which occurred about 12 miles southeast of New Haven (Conn.) Harbor.

“[Bothma] didn’t monitor the ship on radar because he could [visually] see it,” says Kallen. “He kept his course and didn’t call the Barkald until about a minute and 15 seconds before the collision. He was about a quarter of a mile away and was visually watching the freighter but did not know the relative distance he was from it.”

Kallen says the freighter did not pick up the Essence on its radar, though its navigation electronics were working properly. She says both vessels maintained course and speed until Bothma radioed, which was the first indication the freighter had of the sailboat’s presence. “The content of the communication was very vague,” says Kallen. “At one point the mate [Bothma] told the pilot that their port light was out, but it wasn’t. From where Bothma was, he wasn’t able to see the port light, but I don’t know why he assumed it was out.” Kallen says this communication indicates Bothma’s confusion over the position of the Essence relative to the position of the freighter.

The pilot on the freighter, James Mahlmann, was standing next to the helmsman and responded to Bothma’s radio call. Kallen estimates about four exchanges were made, from which Mahlmann assumed the Essence would attempt a close starboard-to-starboard pass. Rather than turning to port and away from the freighter, Bothma had turned slightly to starboard to try and show the pilot his red light during the exchange, Kallen says. But just after Mahlmann asked Bothma if he thought he would clear the freighter, Bothma turned hard to starboard, crossing the bow of the freighter. Kallen says the Barkald crew didn’t have time to sound a warning signal or take any evasive actions prior to impact.

“The freighter wasn’t carrying any cargo, so it was real high in the water,” says Kallen. “The Essence made a sharp turn to starboard, crossed the bow, and the Barkald hit the port side [of the sailboat], pushing it up against the bulbous bow.”

Kallen says there were several people on the bridge of the freighter at the time of the collision: the pilot, the second mate, a watch officer and a helmsman. The captain was behind a curtain separating the fore and aft compartments of the pilothouse, verifying their arrival time in Nova Scotia.

After the impact, Kallen says, Mahlmann cycled the rudder to slow the ship; the Essence was already severely damaged and sinking.

Mahlmann radioed Coast Guard Sector Long Island Sound Command Center in New Haven, and a 25-foot rescue boat was launched. Meanwhile, the crew of the freighter got a lifeboat into the water.

“Rescue boats tend to be open, but this was a closed, encapsulated lifeboat,” says Kallen. “This is something you would abandon ship in. They are fully covered, and they are not designed to be maneuvered; they are designed to save your life.”

The lifeboat hit the water as the Coast Guard arrived, around 4:30 a.m. Robberts was taken aboard the lifeboat, and the Coast Guard rescued Bothma and Bortolotti, who were transferred to emergency medical personnel on shore and then taken to Yale-NewHavenHospital. Robberts went to the Coast Guard station first to report on the accident, and was then sent to the hospital for treatment of a split lip. Bothma was treated for hypothermia, and Bortolotti was pronounced dead of accidental drowning.

Kallen says it is unclear why the Barkald, with properly functioning radar and crew on the bridge, did not see the Essence until Bothma’s call was made. But Kallen noted that the Barkald was not maintaining a proper look-out.

“My conclusion is they [both vessels] failed to follow the rules of the road, but I don’t know why they [Barkald] didn’t see it visually or on radar,” says Kallen. “The fact they didn’t see it was a contributing cause of the casualty.”

Kallen says both the Barkald and the Essence also violated Rule 7 by not adequately determining that a risk of collision existed. Had both vessels maintained their heading, Kallen says it’s not clear whether they would have passed one another unscathed, but it would have been close. “There could’ve only been an exchange of paint,” she says. “But it would have definitely been close.”

She also said that the details of the incident recounted by both the pilot and Bothma “for the most part” matched up.

Kallen says investigations will continue on whether Bothma or anyone on the Barkald will face penalties. As to why the investigation took a year to complete, Kallen says there were no extenuating circumstances other than a shortage of staff.