NTSB Faults Both USCG Cutter And Private Center Console Fishing Skippers
A fatal collision last August off Puerto Rico serves as a reminder to all skippers that maintaining a proper lookout at all times is a critical responsibility of the captain of the vessel. On Aug. 8, 2022, the USCGC Winslow Griesser, a 154-foot fast response cutter, and the Desakata, a 23-foot center console fishing boat, collided four miles off Dorado, Puerto Rico. The collision resulted in the death of Carlos Rosario and injuries to his brother Samuel Rosario Beltrán. The Desakata was destroyed. None of the Coast Guardsmen was injured.
The tragedy is a reminder that small boat skippers should not assume that large vessels are maintaining a proper watch on radar or by Automatic Identification System (AIS). Additionally, small vessel skippers may be distracted by factors not primary to the piloting of the vessel—fishing, entertaining, voyage fatigue, etc. According to the 2022 accident statistics from USCG, the top five primary contributing factors in accidents were operator inattention, operator inexperience, improper lookout, excessive speed, and machinery failure ranked as the top five.
National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators found that the bridge crew on the Winslow Griesser was not immediately aware they had run down the Desakata. The NTSB faulted both skippers for failing to maintain a proper lookout. “Maintaining a proper lookout, by sight and sound, is a fundamental rule of the Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collision at Sea for vessels,” the NTSB said in introducing its findings. In the minutes before the collision, neither the Coast Guard crew nor the fishermen on the Desakata saw the other vessel approaching. The fishermen were focused on their lines trolling for fish, according to the NTSB investigators who interviewed the survivor, while no one on the cutter’s bridge was designated as a lookout with no other duties.
Sequence Of The Incident
Weather forecasts late on the morning of Aug. 8 called for 15–20-knot easterly winds and 4- to 6-foot seas with occasional 8-foot seas. The cutter was proceeding at 29 knots with seas and swells from astern, according to the report. The Griesser is equipped with 16 close-circuit video cameras, and one on the cutter’s mast captured an image of the the Desakata about 19 seconds before the collision, crossing from port to starboard at a near right angle roughly 10° off the bow.
The Desakata was cleaved in two, and the two persons on board went into the water. The cutter recovered both persons: one had minor injuries, and the other was deceased. The boat was declared a total loss of $58,800.
“The NTSB continues to investigate tragedies like this collision in which vessels are not maintaining proper lookout,” NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy said in announcing release of the report. “Early detection of a vessel is critical to avoiding a collision. While technology does not remove the need to maintain a proper lookout, it can aid in early detection, which is why we are issuing a safety alert for small vessels to encourage installing a radar reflector and/or an automatic identification system transponder to improve their detectability.”
The NTSB safety alert encourages owners of recreational boats and small commercial fishing vessels to install radar reflectors and use simplified automatic identification system (AIS) transponders to improve their boats’ detectability by other vessels.
On small boats offshore, however, a radar reflector often affords only limited effectiveness. “AIS Class B and, more recently, AIS B+ transponders have been developed to provide the safety and navigation benefits of AIS to smaller vessels at lower cost and with simpler installation than the more capable Class A type typically found on ocean-going and larger vessels. Had the Desakata been equipped with an AIS Class B or B+ transponder that was transmitting its location, its position would have been shown on AIS-equipped vessels up to several miles away. It is therefore more likely that the Winslow Griesser bridge watch may have been aware of the boat’s presence nearby in the minutes leading up to the collision if the Winslow Griesser bridge watch had been monitoring radar or AIS before the collision.”
Winslow Griesser commanding officer Lt. Cmdr. Benjamin Williamsz, the officer of the deck, and quartermaster of the watch all bore responsibility. “Coast Guard practice is that all members of the bridge watch are responsible for shared lookout duties,” according to the NTSB. “Investigators determined no one was maintaining a lookout at the time of the collision.
Williamsz was relieved as the cutter’s commanding officer in February 2023 “due to a loss of confidence in Williamsz’s ability to effectively command the cutter,” the Coast Guard said at the time.
“Contributing factors, investigators said, included the failure of the Winslow Griesser’s commanding officer and officer of the deck to take sufficient measures to increase situational awareness while the cutter was traveling at a high speed.”
NTSB Marine Investigation Report 23-14.