Report faults captain in tugboat grounding on Bligh Reef

The captain of a tugboat that ripped open on Prince William Sound's Bligh Reef in 2009 was unaware of the boat's position when he put it on a crash course with the infamous and well-known navigational hazard, according to a Coast Guard report.

Capt. Ronald Eugene Monsen changed the tugboat Pathfinder's course, increased its speed and was playing a computer game just before it ran aground the night of Dec. 23, 2009, the report says.

The Crowley Marine Services tugboat spilled about 6,400 gallons of diesel fuel from tanks torn open in the grounding.

Two decades earlier, the Exxon-Valdez oil tanker ran aground on the same reef, dumping more than 11 million gallons of crude oil. The environmental disaster that ensued -- the largest ever in United States waters until the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill last summer -- led to increased safety patrols in Prince William Sound, including the ice-scouting runs by tugs like the Pathfinder.

According to the Coast Guard investigation report set to be published this week, the Pathfinder was scouting for icebergs near Bligh Reef about 5 p.m. with the captain in control of the boat. Monsen told investigators he did not check the boat's location and did not look at its radar when assuming command between 5 and 5:30.

The crew was under orders to give a report on any ice observed in the area at 6 p.m.

Monsen turned control over to the second mate and went below to eat dinner between 5:30 and 5:45 without relaying the tug's location, direction of travel or speed, the report says. His failure to provide and log that information was one of numerous violations of company policy, according to the report.

When he returned to the bridge, Monsen checked the boat's GPS, then moved to a computer that forced him to face the stern of the vessel. He told investigators he checked the weather, checked his email and resumed a game of either solitaire or hearts on the computer, according to the report.

At about 6 p.m., the second mate gave the boat's final report on ice: There was none. They were cleared from the patrol and asked to return to Valdez.

Monsen reached across the second mate, who was sitting at the operator's station, and pushed the boat's throttle to "all ahead full." He also changed their course and resumed playing hearts on the computer, the report says.

"He admittedly didn't have an idea as to where they were prior to the course change," the report states. "The fact that he went to the computer to play video games after a course change further aggravates the situation and amplifies the lack of attention on the bridge between the Master and Second Mate." The Coast Guard said the captain was unclear in his orders about who would be in control of the boat for the voyage home.

As the second mate attempted log their position, it appears he did not tell the captain about his concerns that they were not on the correct course. But it was too late: The tug soon rammed into Bligh Reef.

Monsen was set to retire after 33 years in the industry and 10 on the Pathfinder, according to the Coast Guard report.

Instead, the captain and an unnamed second mate were fired following Crowley's internal investigation, said the company's vice president of operations, Charlie Nalen, by phone from Valdez.

Both men failed to follow basic navigational practices, Nalen said. They also violated company policies about communicating vital information with each other during the boat's operation, he said.

"It's not what we're about," Nalen said. "That's not how Crowley operates vessels."

Reach Casey Grove at or 257-4589.