Alaska ferry hits reef after deviating from planned route

Failure to observe a well-marked aid to navigation resulted in the grounding of an Alaska Marine Highway System ferry, the 235-foot LeConte, on May 10.

The ferry was on a 76-mile route between Angoon and Sitka in southeast Alaska when the accident occurred at 1000 in what Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities spokeswoman Nona Wilson described as “perfect conditions — clear, flat calm, with a good tide and a fair current.”

The vessel grounded on Cozian Reef in the Peril Straits near the northern tip of Baranof Island. All 86 passengers and 23 crewmembers were evacuated. Three passengers received medical treatment for minor injuries in Sitka. There were no fatalities.

Image Credit: Courtesy U.S. Coast Guard

LeConte rests on Cozian Reef in the Peril Straits as a salvage crew from Titan Maritime works to refloat the ferry.

According to Lt. j.g. Daniel Buchsbaum, with the U.S. Coast Guard Marine Safety Office Juneau, both the master and the chief mate were on the bridge when the grounding occurred. The Coast Guard’s preliminary findings indicate that the chief mate was conning the vessel when a decision was made to alter course for a route that took the ferry inside of Otstoia Island. That route was not part of the original plan for the voyage. After allowing a tug and tow to pass, the chief mate ordered the helmsman to turn the ferry without first checking the ship’s position to determine the proper course, according to the Coast Guard. The master and the chief mate then failed to see a fixed aid to navigation marking the proper route past a well-known hazard, Cozian Reef. LeConte grounded on the reef while underway at 16 knots.

An investigation by the DOT&PF has found that the actions of the captain and chief mate were negligent, because they altered course without first fixing the vessel’s position, failed to see a navigation aid and grounded the vessel at full speed. Both men have been fired.

The Coast Guard officers investigating the accident found no evidence of alcohol use and were awaiting the results of drug tests.

The master was serving as a relief captain when the accident occurred. The master was “very familiar with all of the vessels in the fleet and all of their routes,” Wilson, the DOT&PF spokeswoman, said.

Coast Guard helicopter crews were dispatched from Sitka along with the Coast Guard cutters Maple, Anacapa and Liberty. Also assisting was the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research vessel John Cobb and a number of good-Samaritan vessels.

Wilson said that the evacuation “went perfectly” and commended the crew and all those who assisted.

Once the evacuation was complete, salvage operations began. Crowley Marine Services, under contract with the Alaska Marine Highway System, made internal and external surveys that found two 50-foot gashes in the bow on either side of the hull.

The extent of the damage and the vessel’s position on the reef made stabilization efforts tricky. Lightering and temporary repairs were made, and a week after grounding, LeConte was refloated. After what may be best described as a delicate extrication, the refloated ferry was towed to dry dock at Alaska Ship and Drydock in Ketchican for repairs. The repairs, estimated at close to $3 million, are expected to be completed by Sept. 1. The accident came just as the busy summer travel season in Alaska was about to begin.

By Professional Mariner Staff