1. Environment

Rough seas: A St. Pete research ship crashes into docks and yachts, and people lose their jobs

From left, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, University of South Florida President Judy Genshaft, and Florida Institute of Oceanography marine operations manager Rob Walker aboard the R/V W. T. Hogarth during a welcome ceremony for the research vessel at Bayboro Harbor. [Times (2017)]
From left, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, University of South Florida President Judy Genshaft, and Florida Institute of Oceanography marine operations manager Rob Walker aboard the R/V W. T. Hogarth during a welcome ceremony for the research vessel at Bayboro Harbor. [Times (2017)]
Published Jun. 14, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG — Last year, a scientific research ship normally anchored at the University of South Florida's St. Petersburg campus smacked into two yachts as its crew tried to squeeze into a tight Miami Beach boat slip.

On the way out the next day, the 78-foot R/V W.T. Hogarth banged into one of the boats again, collided with the dock and snapped a piling.

Those two crashes were part of what an expert called "a chain of accidents" last year involving the $6 million ship owned by the Florida Institute of Oceanography -— accidents that racked up big repair bills, seriously injured crew members, caused the departure of one captain and sparked a lengthy safety review.

Now the director of the institute has been ousted. He says it was because he was trying to follow the review's recommendations for improving ship safety.

"There were a number of things in that report that I was trying to implement," Philip Kramer said in an interview. "The things I was trying to do didn't go over so well with the University of South Florida."

In May, USF officials let him know they "wanted to go in a different direction," said Kramer, a marine geologist with a Ph.D. who had run the institute for three years. He resigned.

"After considering input from our stakeholders and discussions with Dr. Kramer, it was determined that new leadership was in the best interests of the Florida Institute of Oceanography," USF provost Ralph Wilcox said in a statement emailed to the Tampa Bay Times.

The Florida Institute of Oceanography is an odd duck. Founded in 1967, the institute and its $2.5 million budget are not really a part of USF but its administration is overseen by the school. Its resources are supposed to be available throughout the state university system, but it has nowhere else to dock its ships except USF St. Petersburg's waterfront campus. Most of its 27 employees work out the same building as USF"s College of Marine Sciences.

Scientists who work for a state university and who want to use the Hogarth or its sister ship, the 115-foot R/V Weatherbird II, for research projects can catch a ride on one at no charge, explained James Garey, a USF vice provost who's now filling in as the institute's executive director. The ships have gone all over the gulf, as well as up and down the state's Atlantic coast. They're both on the water 200 days a year, he said. More recently, they carried scientists to collect data related to the 14-month Red Tide algae bloom.

Two events in 2017 proved to be a turning point for the institute. One was the launching of the Hogarth, built in a Tarpon Springs shipyard, to replace another ship that was 45 years old, the R/V Bellows. The second: Then-Gov. Rick Scott vetoed a $1.2 million appropriation, slashing the institute's capabilities. (In 2015 he had vetoed a $6 million appropriation to build the Hogarth.)

"I heard (the 2017 veto) was fairly devastating to the people who worked here," Garey said.

To cope with the loss of funding, the institute raided its reserves, Garey said. It also began hiring temporary employees to man its ships, some of them lacking essential maritime skills, according to the 2018 safety review. They got seasick or didn't know how to run things properly, the review found. It concluded the constant turnover hurt morale, as did the 14-hour work days and the institute's efforts to skimp on overtime pay. And it found some of the permanent employees burned out and quit, to be replaced by more temporary sailors, the review said.

What developed, according to the review, was a "relaxed safety culture" at the institute, which led to what its author called "a chain of accidents" involving the Hogarth.

The Hogarth was touring ports around the state to show off the new ship to the universities that contributed $3 million to its construction. But not all the equipment on the ship worked properly, including a propulsion device known as a bow thruster that a crew uses to maneuver the ship's front end.

On the morning of Jan. 31, 2018, the crew of the Hogarth was trying to ease into a berth at the Miami Beach Marina. Two large yachts were moored on either side. Because the crew couldn't maneuver very well without the bow thruster, it banged into both the 191-foot Carpe Diem and the 80-foot Coal Blooded, scraping paint but causing no serious damage, according to the marina's report on the incident.

The next day was worse.

"The Hogarth, while attempting to leave the marina, collided with the starboard bow of the Coal Blooded, causing damages," the marina's report states. "The port bow of the Hogarth also made contact with the dock, causing damages to the concrete and breaking a piling in half."

A video of that crash shows the ship awkwardly lurching back and forth. Men on the dock yell warnings about what it's about to hit. Then comes a crunching sound.

Insurance covered the cost: $4,375 for damaging the dock and $12,179 to repair the Coal Blooded.

Two weeks after the Miami Beach docking collisions, the Hogarth tied up in Fort Myers. Before leaving St. Petersburg, a piece of scientific equipment had fallen over and damaged the gangplank, so the captain had left it behind, Kramer said. The temporary gangplank the crew rigged up worked fine until Fort Myers, where suddenly it didn't.

As a result, a longtime crew member, a cook, fell and seriously injured his knee. The cook, Patrick Foster, said he could not discuss his injury claim, which remains unresolved.

"He's been out for over a year now," Kramer said. After that, he said, "the captain was let go." That meant the crew of temps aboard the Hogarth were under a temporary captain, too.

There were other injuries as well, including one involving someone who fell off the captain's chair. Because of the injuries, the institute hired retired admiral Mike Devany and his Seattle-based Oceans 360 Group to perform the safety review.

Devany interviewed all the ships' current employees and some former ones, and spent time aboard both the Hogarth and the Weatherbird II. His report blasted the institute not only for running the Hogarth in an unsafe manner, but also for failing to fully document its accidents. He found plenty more that was wrong, too.

"Most of the maintenance records are in the engineer's head," he wrote. He urged the institute to hire permanent crew members and pay them more, to attract qualified applicants.

He criticized the institute for not having a position called "marine superintendent," to serve as a safety watchdog (the position had been eliminated in 2012 by Kramer's predecessor, William Hogarth, the namesake of the accident-prone ship.) He found the institute to be "a house divided" with no one really in charge.

Kramer said that implementing the admiral's recommendations required him to draw up a reorganization plan for the institute, begin hiring people and invest in better equipment for the ships. To pay for that, he planned to reduce what is spent on other parts of the institute, including a remote laboratory it runs in the Keys.

His reorganization plan found no fans in the USF provost's office, he said, and "I spent much of the last three months or so spinning my wheels." He said he also was trying to change the membership of the institute's grant review board to eliminate conflicts of interest. He was particularly concerned that USF officials sat on the board that judged grant applicants from the university. That went nowhere either, he said.

Wilcox, in his email to the Times, said when it comes to the admiral's safety recommendations, USF officials are definitely on board. He said that the institute will be "developing a new management structure with a newly created marine superintendent position. In order to meet these commitments, (the institute) will invest approximately $405,000 in one-time expenses and $340,000 in recurring costs."

Safety is a priority for the institute, Garey said. But he noted that there's no way to prevent unforeseen mishaps?.

"Working on a ship," he said, "is never 100 percent safe."

Times senior researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Craig Pittman at . Follow @craigtimes.