In two separate incidents since mid-December, vessels passing under the Casco Bay Bridge “allided” with a bridge fender and an anchored tug and barge. One of the incidents resulted in substantial property loss. Neither event made headlines.

On Dec. 16, 2004, the tug PENN 4 was pushing the barge PENN 90 out of Portland’s inner harbor when it struck a fender protecting the approach to the passage under the Casco Bay Bridge. The tug VICKI MCCALLISTER was also on-scene.

The Coast Guard argot for a moving vessel hitting a stationary object is “allision.” A barge “alliding” with the bridge’s fender system on its own made no waves beyond the immediate circle of players. Coast Guard investigators determined there was neither significant damage, injury nor equipment failure. The bridge fender system acted as it is meant to, and nobody got hurt. The case remains under investigation, however, to determine how and what happened.

Then on Jan. 13, 2005, the 730-foot freighter ATLANTIC SUPERIOR, under the command of a Portland docking pilot, was inbound for the Sprague terminal to offload a bulk cargo of salt when her starboard bow made contact with the tug AMERICAN CHAMPION and the dredge barge to which the tug was fastened, the J. CASHMAN. The tugs VICKI MCCALLISTER and STAMFORD were assisting ATLANTIC SUPERIOR into the inner harbor. According to Coast Guard reports, this incident was an allision too, because both the tug and barge were lying anchored and stationary to the left of the shipping channel, between the Casco Bay Bridge and the Motiva oil terminal pier on the South Portland side, at the time they were struck.

While the ATLANTIC SUPERIOR apparently suffered no damage, the Coast Guard reports “significant damage” to both the AMERICAN CHAMPION tug and the J. CASHMAN dredge barge. No injuries were reported in the incident, and despite heightened concern over port security, no one beyond the harbor community would comment on the record.

Docking a large vessel in Portland harbor is no easy task, even for professional docking masters who must line up a 730-foot ship to pass through the uprights of the Casco Bay Bridge and then shunt her through the narrow channel when something — wind, current, a mistaken command or a combination — causes the ship to veer left suddenly, out of the channel and into a stationary tug.

“It’s a dynamic situation,” surmises Coast Guard public affairs Lt. John Reardon. “You have tides, the pilot, other ships, weather; there are so many things that come into play” when bringing a ship into dock. Reardon says Coast Guard investigators are at work interviewing “the standard witnesses. We work with the bridge tenders, get the videos, and talk to the parties involved — the pilots, and crewmen on the vessels. It’s pretty laid out and thorough.” Meanwhile, given the potentially litigious circumstances, none of the other parties had anything to say.