Alaska cruise ship comes to rest on sandbar; second incident for the company in 6 months

The 178-foot Spirit of Glacier Bay sits high and dry in Tarr Inlet near Glacier Bay National Park.  No injuries were reported among the 51 people aboard. The grounding occurred on the morning of June 4. Seas were calm and visibility was six miles at the time.  (Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)

Already undergoing a U.S. Coast Guard safety review because of previous incidents, Cruise West Enterprises had another of its vessels run aground in July off Alaska.

The 178-foot cruise ship Spirit of Glacier Bay grounded on a sandbar in Tarr Inlet near Glacier Bay National Park on July 7. It was the second grounding of one the company’s ships in just over a month. The Coast Guard is reviewing Cruise West’s safety and maintenance procedures following three mechanical failures and the grounding of Spirit of Alaska on June 4.

Coast Guard Station Juneau reported that the Spirit of Glacier Bay incident occurred at 0747, with no breach of the hull. No injuries were reported among the 51 people onboard.

Seas were calm and visibility was six miles at the time. Coast Guard Safety Technician 3rd Class Eric Hunter said the vessel was carrying the required number of personnel.

The Coast Guard launched two MH-60 Jayhawk helicopters from Air Station Sitka, a 47-foot motor life boat and a 25-foot response boat from Station Juneau, and the 110-foot cutter Liberty from Auke Bay to assist the cruise ship. The National Park Service vessel Fairweather II Express was also dispatched to assist in evacuating passengers. A containment boom was deployed around Spirit of Glacier Bay as a precaution, but no fuel leakage was reported.

A Coast Guard inspector and investigator arrived at the scene immediately after the incident via commercial floatplane. Further examination revealed that the vessel’s midsection was damaged from resting on the sandbar. Several frames were bent and a 3-inch hairline crack was discovered in the shell plate. The Coast Guard later escorted Spirit of Glacier Bay to Juneau and will oversee permanent repairs before allowing the vessel to return to service.

On June 4, Spirit of Alaska, a 144-foot cruise ship also owned by Cruise West, briefly touched bottom while getting under way after anchoring overnight in the vicinity of Williams Cove near Tracy Arm. There were no injuries among the 44 passengers or 22 crewmembers, but the starboard rudder was damaged and the ship had to proceed to Seattle, the home of Cruise West, for repairs.

Capt. Scott Robert, commander of Coast Guard sector Juneau, said that after three mechanical failures and the June 4 grounding, the Coast Guard decided to examine safety systems onboard Cruise West vessels. Coast Guard personnel are examining safety plans, equipment and maintenance policies.

“They had basically a track record, a data point that we felt needed us to take a concentrated, concerted look at the way they were conducting operations,†Robert said. “We basically worked with the company to develop a safety stand-down program with their fleet. In a stand-down, we will go aboard with the company executives and for a period, usually a day, we will review their safety procedures. It is a review of their safety and security programs.â€

Robert said he would not characterize Cruise West’s mechanical problems as out of the ordinary.

“We routinely have mechanical failures, but as you look at data associated with Cruise West we had some concerns and that was why we took action,†he said.

Robert said the Coast Guard tracks performance discrepancies among cruise companies and has a list of criteria that will trigger a response.

“Then we reach out to that company to partner with them to try to come up with some solutions to make them safer and more secure,†Robert said. “It is truly a partnership. We avoid using a hammer from a regulatory perspective. We don’t want to impede commerce, we want to facilitate it, and the best way is through partnership.â€

According to the Anchorage Daily News, Cruise West’s Spirit of Columbia lost power to both of its generators and one of two propeller engines while about 80 miles south of Juneau on May 10. Spirit of Columbia had run aground in August 2007. In June 2007, Cruise West’s Spirit of Yorktown collided with the 58-foot fishing vessel Adirondack in Chatham Strait and crippled the seiner.

Jerrol Golden, director of public services for Cruise West, said the company is working with the Coast Guard on a thorough safety review.

“Cruise West initiated this review,†Golden said. “This entails a focused effort on the part of Cruise West and the Coast Guard. In addition, we have brought in an objective third party to gain insights on how we can best continue to provide the safest product for our guests. We have already completed the majority of these reviews and will use insight from these meetings and audits to review and incorporate any necessary, recommended improvements to our systems. We will continue to cooperate with the Coast Guard and seek their input as we continue to provide the best possible cruise experience now and into the future.â€

Golden said the safety management system review was spurred by the recent incidents, “which, though resulting in no harm to any guests, are unacceptable to our standard of operation. This is, essentially, a preventative measure to help us assess and achieve continuous improvement in our operations.â€

Cruise West announced on July 25 that Spirit of Glacier Bay will be taken out of service for the remainder of the 2008 Alaska cruise season.

 “After careful consideration, Cruise West officials decided to combine necessary repairs with regularly scheduled maintenance and planned refurbishments that would have been implemented following the Alaska cruise season,†the company said in a statement. “All repairs and maintenance will be done in Seattle.â€

Cruise West said the line looks forward to Spirit of Glacier Bay’s return to service in 2009, after it has been upgraded.

By Professional Mariner Staff