Alaska ferry hits seafood pier while trying to dock in swift current


An Alaska state ferry went off course and crashed into a fish-processing dock while attempting to maneuver into its regular berth.

The U.S. Coast Guard said the 408-foot Matanuska approached its terminal at Petersburg, Alaska, at flood tide, and the swift current in Wrangell Narrows was a factor in the accident.

Matanuska, part of the Alaska Marine Highway, was turning toward the ferry dock on May 7 when the vessel drifted too far sideways toward port. The ferry’s bow smashed the pier operated by Ocean Beauty Seafoods LLC, causing extensive damage to a crane, wooden pilings, office walls and railings.

After the ferry crashed into it, the seafood company’s pier had damage to pilings, a wall and a crane. The facility could not reopen for the 2012 season.

Lt. Patrick Drayer, the Coast Guard’s chief of investigations for Sector Juneau, said weather and visibility were good, and the ferry crew didn’t report any mechanical malfunctions. He is still investigating the officers’ decision-making in maneuvering through the flood current.

“This body of water is very narrow and long,” Drayer said. “The maximum flood tide going in there is about 4.5 knots, and they were going in there at the max. That’s not unusual around here. … They use different angles depending on the current.”

The incident occurred at 1312. The southbound car ferry was carrying about 60 passengers on the Alaska Panhandle route from Juneau, said Jeremy Woodrow, a spokesman for the Alaska Department of Transportation, which operates Alaska Marine Highway. Depending on how the vessel approaches the terminal, it must turn in at an angle in close quarters.

“It does have to change course,” Woodrow said. “The docks are located in an eddy. The ferry has to maneuver out of the current and into the eddy.”

Drayer said the wind was 5 knots. Petersburg is on the north end of Wrangell Narrows.

The Alaska Marine Highway ferry Matanuska strays off-course to its port side in Wrangell Narrows while preparing for a landing at the Petersburg Ferry Terminal.

Virginia Howe illustration/Source: U.S. Coast Guard

“They were lining up for a port-side mooring, so they were heading south in the channel,” Drayer said. “The (fish-processing) pier is on the east side of the channel.”

Drayer said the seafood pier is about a quarter-mile north of the ferry berth. He was able to review passengers’ amateur video of the attempted landing and crash. One video of the impact and aftermath had more than 39,000 views on YouTube. The video indicates that the ferry crew sounded one long horn blast just before striking the dock.

“It was maybe an impact angle of 60° on the port bow — not quite a head-on angle,” Drayer said. “Where they hit was the face of the pier where the fishing vessels are moored to unload their catch. There was an unloading crane that was damaged.”

The 1,500-foot fishing pier is between Petersburg’s North and Middle harbors. Ocean Beauty Seafoods, based in Seattle, said it would not be able to use the Petersburg dock for the 2012 fishing season. A damage estimate was still unavailable in June.

The Alaska Marine Highway System issued a statement apologizing for the accident and stating that the Matanuska crew responded properly to the emergency. No one was hurt.

Drayer said it was fortunate that no one was injured on the dock. The ship’s bow penetrated second-floor walls, demolishing some of the structure.

“It was where the offices were,” he said. “There were people in there, in the back side of the building but not in the front side where the damage was,” he said. “If anybody had been in the front there, yes, they would have been at risk because the bow of the vessel went in approximately 10 feet.”

Matanuska had only minor paint scrapes as a result of the accident. After an inspection, the ferry was able to depart Petersburg for Wrangell just two hours behind schedule.

By Professional Mariner Staff