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Anatomy of a grounding: Investigator shares details of Blough ‘casualty’ on Lake Superior

Tugs and Coast Guard vessels assist and monitor the grounded freighter Roger Blough on May 30 near Gros Cap Reefs Light in eastern Lake Superior. A safety zone was established after the Blough ran aground on the reef May 27. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Christopher M. Yaw)1 / 2
The motor vessel Roger Blough holds steady with assistance of support tugs as the ship is refloated after being aground on rocks for more than a week near the Gros Cap Reefs Light in Lake Superior on June 4, 2016. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Craig Gorman2 / 2

The lake freighter that grounded last spring in the southeasternmost pool of Lake Superior known as Whitefish Bay was attempting to pass a dead ship being towed out of the lake.

In an interview with the News Tribune, the lead investigator of the U.S. Coast Guard's inquiry also revealed that the grounding of the Roger Blough caused so much damage to the ship as to make it the rare "major marine casualty" on the Great Lakes.

"There are different levels of marine casualty," said Lt. Daniel Every of Coast Guard Sector Sault Ste. Marie. "A major marine casualty would be something with $500,000 damage or more."

The Roger Blough suffered $4.5 million worth of damages, Every said, based on the cost of steel and labor to replace the parts of the hull impacted by the grounding. The investigation is still considered open and will be until Coast Guard headquarters in Washington, D.C., signs off on the final report, which will include safety and other recommendations directed at the people and companies involved and possibly even the government itself.

"I've written several," said Every, who could not go into detail about those recommendations or answer the question of culpability. What he did do was describe the 858-foot boat skidding to a stop on May 27, requiring the Blough to be unloaded at sea in a complex arrangement that lasted nearly two weeks.

The Blough belongs to the Great Lakes Fleet of ships owned by Canadian National Railway, which said it "won't weigh in much," via spokesman Patrick Waldron. The Blough returned to service on Aug. 6, he said.

Waldron added that CN worked with its customers along the supply chain to maintain transportation services during the incident. The Blough's iron ore was offloaded at sea onto fleet mates Arthur M. Anderson and Philip R. Clarke on June 6-7, precipitating the freeing of the ship.

Waldron declined to answer a question on dollars and production lost in the ordeal. A private salvage operation from Houston, DonJon-SMIT, was brought in to assist at the scene.

Duluth-based Keylakes Inc. operates the Blough and other Great Lakes Fleet vessels as a subsidiary of the larger Keystone Shipping Co., based in Pennsylvania, which passed along a statement from Bruce Fernie, vice president of operations.

"Keylakes/Great Lakes Fleet is committed to maintaining the safety of the vessels it operates on the Great Lakes and continues to cooperate with the U.S. Coast Guard and CN as the investigation into this incident runs its course," he said.

The National Transportation Safety Board assisted in the investigation, supporting the Coast Guard in its lead role. The NTSB said it will issue a final brief on the grounding of the Blough, but through a spokesperson deferred comment to the Coast Guard until then.

Even without the conclusions of an investigation that included interviews with crew and companies of both the Blough and the other vessel dealing with problems of its own, the Tim S. Dool, the lead investigator in the case was able to paint a clearer picture of what happened beginning on that Friday night.

Highs had been in the 70s, and it had been a reportedly foggy day as the Blough sailed just south of a knife of an island named Ile Parisienne. The Blough's holds were weighted to capacity with 44,000 tons of taconite iron ore pellets.

When it grounded suddenly, the lake freighter didn't slam to a halt — or "stop on a dime," as Every put it. Instead, the Blough kept hurtling on, inertia carrying her across the bedrock of the Gros Cap Reef. When she finally stopped in about 22 feet of water, "she was not in the channel anymore," Every said. She rested near the Gros Cap Reefs Light — a midlake station and protrusion that mark the entrance of the St. Marys River. Fortunately, the Blough's trajectory featured a contoured slope that rose to the field of craggy bedrock.

The Phillip R. Clarke (left) arrives to help the grounded Roger Blough on June 2. (Transport Canada photo)"What we don't know for certain is the precise location of what part of the boat made contact with ground first and where exactly that piece of ground it hit first was. It's still very speculative," Every said.

The bottom of the boat sustained multiple cracks, holes and dents. Hull material was torn. Internal framing members were bent, torn and cracked. There was flooding in ballast tanks up to the water line, which served to stabilize the boat. The Blough was surveyed by divers repeatedly, then patched and nursed from place to place like a hospital patient before ending up in a Sturgeon Bay, Wis., shipyard to undergo a significant amount of what Every called "crop-and-renew."

How the Blough got out of a channel 35-40 feet deep that was "blasted years and years ago" remains a mystery. The channel is maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and Every said a scan of the channel afterward "found that there was good water in the channel and that it was as it should have been."

Every explained that the Dool had lost all electrical power and propulsion the day before it met the Blough. The Dool was "a dead ship" — and marine casualty herself — and the Blough came upon her on a similar track, making much better speed. "At some point, they came to an agreement of making a pass as they both headed into the St. Marys," Every said.

Everything on the opposite side of the lake, from Thunder Bay, Ont., down to Duluth and Superior, follows lines and common routes that funnel into the miles-long entrance of the St. Marys. The Lake Carriers' Association's nautical map of the channel marks it by dashed lines. Somehow that's where things went awry.

"There is ample room in the channel for vessels to pass each other, yes," Every said. "For instance, farther down in the St. Marys, where the river bends and such, one would hold off on and go around the bend first. ... But the channel, that's long enough, based on speed and depending on the situation."

To hear the deeper narrative from Every is to put to doubt any conclusions a person might begin to draw. The Blough, he said, "from what we can tell, it grounded inside the channel. ... Once it caught, it turned to port about 10 degrees or so and the forward momentum of the ship brought it out so that it left the channel, continued over the reefs and came to rest near the lighthouse."

According to the website, the Blough — which first sailed in 1972 — had previously struck the stern of the Philip R. Clarke in 1973 while the boats were working in ice in the Straits of Mackinac. It later lost a rudder in 2006, with minor other bumps and bruises along the way.

Right now, it would seem only Every, the chain of command to which he reports and the NTSB are privy to the investigation results. But Every gave a hint of things to still unfold when he said, "We review policies and procedures at the company levels; rules, regulations and laws at the federal levels and if what is in play at the time was adequate or if there are enhancements we can create, or safety recommendations. That can take time — depending on what's in it."