Captain intentionally directs ferry into pilings after it fails to slow properly while docking

The double-ended Cumberland, with a single screw at each end, was built in 2000. Following the accident, the company replaced the electronic throttle controls with more traditional ones. (Courtesy Lake Champlain Transportation Co.)

A Lake Champlain car ferry’s engineer and two passengers were injured when the vessel landed hard into pilings while docking at Grand Isle, Vt.

The captain of the ferry Cumberland intentionally steered the boat into wooden pilings after the vessel failed to slow down sufficiently, said the ferry’s operator, Lake Champlain Transportation Co.

Neither the operator nor the U.S. Coast Guard would say what probably caused the Jan. 30 accident, but Lake Champlain Transportation said the ferry’s throttle system was replaced as a result of the incident.

The Coast Guard investigator, Ed Green, said Cumberland”s engineer was standing in the engine room when the vessel struck the pilings off its starboard side. The speed was less than 1 knot, Green said.

“He was knocked down,” Green said. “There were two (passengers injured) who were in the lounge.” The three suffered knee and back injuries. They were treated at a hospital in Burlington, Vt.

Visibility was clear, and the 4-knot wind out of the south probably didn’t cause a problem for the eastbound ferry, Green said.

The accident happened at 1730 while the 207-foot boat was completing a regular 12-minute commuter voyage from Cumberland Head, near Plattsburgh, N.Y. The vessel was carrying 52 passengers and an unspecified number of vehicles, one of which was damaged. According to Heather Stewart, Lake Champlain Transportation’s operations manager, Cumberland’s capacity is 200 passengers and 50 cars.

Green said the ferry’s normal speed across the lake is 9 knots before the crew throttles down to ease into the slip at Grand Isle’s Gordon Landing. In this case, the captain realized that the vessel wasn’t decelerating to his liking, and he sounded the alarm to alert the crew of the emergency. The ferry uses two deck hands.

Stewart credited the crew with reacting well to the emergency. “The captain really thought on his feet,” Stewart said. “The captain did steer the boat into the pilings to potentially avert a more serious accident,” she said. “He saw the boat wasn’t slowing down, so he made the decision to use the pilings so it wouldn’t bump as hard.”

The impact broke or bent several wooden pilings. Green said repairing the damage would cost about $5,000. The boat had only a small ding on its bow. Stewart wouldn’t say whether the Burlington-based company believes there was equipment failure. She confirmed that a new throttle system was installed as a direct result of the accident. The vessel was out of service for 24 days during the job.

“The company made a decision to change out the throttle system to make it more of a mechanical system rather than an electronic system,” Green said. He declined to elaborate on the reasons, although he did say some captains prefer the more traditional throttle to newer high-tech ones.

By Professional Mariner Staff