Anatomy of a Shipwreck: The Tug “Celtic” and Its Barge “Cape Race”
By Robert Bachand
Since the early days of our Nation, Long Island Sound has always served as a vital waterway for commercial and some military traffic. During some years, as many as 1,900 barges are towed on these waters along with a host of other vessels that use the Sound. These include bulk carriers, refrigerator ships, tank vessels, passenger ships, oyster and lobstermen, recreational vessels, naval vessels and two major year-round ferry services.
There are a great many wrecks lying on the bottom of Long Island Sound (AWOIS LIST, 1997). In her book, Perils of the Port of New York,1973, Jeanette Rattray recounted that “the bottom of Long Island Sound is paved with coal, a legacy of a time when schooners and long strings of barges, towed by a single tug.” Unanticipated storms could send these barges crashing into each other, causing a number to sink.
The fate of the tug Celtic and her tow, Cape Race, is but one of these stories. The tug towing an empty barge left Port Newark, New Jersey, on October 17, 1984. Sailing into Long Island Sound, she arrived in late morning at Bridgeport Harbor, where her crew moored their tow. The 85.9-foot tug then proceeded to the port’s Jacob Brothers scrapyard where she was to take on two scrap-loaded barges, Herbert E. Smith and Cape Race, for a return trip to Port Newark.
Scrap barges are loaded using a grappler or an electromagnet. As the materials are dropped into the barge, they can cause “dents, holes and even occasional cracks in a barge’s hull.” As the Herbert B. Smith was being loaded, the crane operator noticed that she was listing to one side. Inspection by welders revealed two cracks in the forward part of the hull. Repairs were made but just before their scheduled departure, the barge was again found to be leaking. It was thus decided to return to Port Newark with only the Cape Race in tow.
The Cape Race however, was not in much better shape. She reportedly had not been drydocked for the decade proceeding October of 1984. At that time, she was taken in the shipyard to repair leaks in her hull. During that entire span of 10 years, there apparently had been neither bottom painting nor replacement of zinc anodes. The Coast Guard was not required to inspect scrap barges that were limited to “saltwater routes, through harbors, bays and sounds.” But tank barges had to be drydocked and inspected every 2 to 3 years.
The repairs to the Cape Race proved to be less than adequate. When a weld was attempted, the metal over the leak proved to be too thin. The barge’s owner then decided to have a doubler-plate welded over the site. But it was later concluded by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) that its installation “may have weakened the bottom structure of the barge.” Coast Guard regulations for tank barges would not have permitted that type of repair.
On November 17, 1984, a couple of hours after dark, the Celtic left the harbor, pushing the attached barge ahead of her. The bridge tender at the Pleasure Island Bridge would later state that the “barge had about 4 to 5 feet of its hull above water, and that the barge appeared to be level.”
As the tug entered the open Sound with Penfield Reef Lighthouse to her starboard, she encountered 3- 4-foot seas out of the west. The Celtic’s 6-man crew had no inkling that the Cape Race was leaking. But as she sailed just off Norwalk’s Sheffield Island, the mate suddenly reversed the engine. Water rushing through a hole in the barge’s hull had apparently filled the vessel to a point where waves broke over her freeboard. In a terrifying instant, the tug was dragged down by the barge to below the surface. There was no time to send a distress signal or time for the crew to abandon ship.
On the next morning, around 8:30 am, it became apparent that something might be wrong. The Celtic had not arrived as scheduled at the Port of Newark. The tug company’s dispatcher tried to contact the tug on VHF channel 5, but got no response. The Coast Guard was then notified. USCG helicopters were dispatched, but there were no signs of the vessels.
The search was resumed on the following morning with Coast Guard cutters and helicopters looking for debris, oil slick and a life raft. At about 8:10 am, a helicopter sighted an oil slick. A fishing vessel, Moonshine, which had joined in the search, then sighted the wrecks on its recording depth sounder. At the request of the Coast Guard, Norwalk and Bridgeport police divers were dispatched to the site. Entering the pilothouse, Norwalk divers discovered two bodies and that of the chief engineer, who was located in the upper engine room. The body of the ship’s cook was later recovered. But it would not be until the following day that the commercial divers located the captain and the other crewman in their bunks. It was concluded that they had probably been asleep at the time of the accident.
As suggested in the NTSB report (January 15,1986), had it been possible “to remotely release the towlines from the pilothouse, tragedy might have been avoided.” In a recent accident off the coast of British Columbia (November, 2016), the tug Columbia Layne avoided what could have been a similar tragedy. When the barge’s sand and gravel contents shifted, it immediately began taking on water. The tug was able to remotely release the towlines from the pilothouse, before the water-laden barge sank to the bottom.
The Celtic settled to the bottom nearly upright, in about 60 feet of water. Divers found the 146-feet long Cape Race also resting upright, just a few feet away from the tug. There was relatively little damage to the Celtic. Had the tug been equipped with an emergency position indicating beacon, noted the NTSB, it would have been located sooner. It however, would not have improved the crew’s chances of survival.
Following completion of the accident investigation, the shipwreck quickly became one of Long Island Sound’s favorite dive sites. Similar to other wrecks and artificial reefs, the Celtic and Cape Race became a nursery, habitat and/or shelter for many marine creatures. Within a year, a pioneer species of marine life, plant-like pink hydroids, covered much of its deck surfaces. Blackfish (tautogs) and cunners also became some of its first residents. Red beard and sulfur sponge, anemones and tiny colonies of cold water coral would later settle on the wreck.
Photographs by the author