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Alaska tug captain faulted for playing video games

By Yereth Rosen

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - A safety-escort tug that ran aground two years ago on Prince William Sound's Bligh Reef, site of the Exxon Valdez disaster, went astray because of an inattentive captain who was playing video games, the U.S. Coast Guard has concluded.

The tugboat Pathfinder was part of a navigation safety system established in the aftermath of the 1989 spill to guide oil tankers through the sound after they fill up with crude at the marine terminal of the trans-Alaska pipeline in Valdez.

But the Crowley Marine Services-operated vessel wound up striking the same submerged reef that ripped open the hull of the Exxon Valdez supertanker, causing the worst tanker spill in U.S. waters.

The Coast Guard report, dated May 5, is preliminary and was issued to various parties investigating the 2009 tugboat accident, Petty Officer Walter Shinn said Wednesday.

The report was not formally released to the public, but a final report is expected to be issued later in the week, said Shinn, based at the Coast Guard's Alaska office in Juneau.

The Pathfinder spilled 6,410 gallons of diesel fuel after it struck Bligh Reef on the evening of December 23, 2009. The vessel had been headed back to Valdez after scouting for floating ice in the area traveled by oil tankers.

According to the Coast Guard report, Captain Eugene Monsen changed the Pathfinder's course despite losing track of the vessel's precise location, increased speed and failed to properly communicate with other officers.

"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 report said.

Monsen was playing hearts and other games on the computer and had his back to the bridge's front window, the report said.

The Coast Guard report noted that the captain and the second mate had violated Crowley's operating policies.

But the report also recommended the company update its policies, calling for new provisions to address crew members' use of cell phones and recreational electronic devices.

The Coast Guard also should consider some new rules or policies about use of such devices, the report said.

"Games, music, phone calls to far-away family are a strong temptation and could easily distract a ship's officer from maintaining a proper lookout," the report said.

Crowley Maritime Corp. spokesman Mark Miller said Wednesday that the Pathfinder's captain and second mate were fired after they were determined to have violated policies. The incident was an aberration for the company, which has a long history of operating throughout Alaska, Miller said in an email.

"Crowley has a proven record of safe and reliable operations in Alaska. It deeply regrets the Pathfinder grounding incident," Miller said.

(Editing by Steve Gorman and Jerry Norton)