Chief mate demoted following grounding of Washington state ferry

The grounding of a Washington state ferry on a marked rock on Dec. 24, 2004, was caused by several mistakes by the chief mate, including inattention, failure to communicate with the bridge team, failure to fully use the mapping function on the vessel’s radar and failure to monitor the vessel’s position, according to the accident report.

The chief mate, 57, with 20 years’ experience on the Washington State Ferries, was in charge of the active pilothouse of the double-ended ferry when the grounding occurred. He has been a chief mate since 1993 and often worked as master on a temporary basis. In his career at WSF he had no accidents or disciplinary actions. The chief mate was suspended for a year without pay and permanently demoted to second mate.

The punishment means the chief mate will essentially never pilot a WSF vessel again. He did not contest the punishment, according to Senior Port Capt. Kelly Mitchell, who led the investigation. The vessel’s captain received a letter in his file for not following safety procedures after the grounding. No other personnel were disciplined or cited, according to Mitchell.

The chief mate, who has served as a relief mate and master for the past five years, said he often worked irregular hours and had not had a vacation in a year. He maintained that fatigue was a contributing factor in the grounding. He also asserted that his punishment was excessive compared with what others have received following similar accidents.

Sealth, a 2,477-gross-ton ferry left Friday Harbor on San Juan Island at 2000, heading to Anacortes, Wash. At 2007 the ferry struck Reid Rock, which is covered by about 13 feet of water and is marked by a lighted buoy. The buoy was visible by sight and by radar at the time of the grounding, according to the accident report. Sealth draws about 15 feet.

After the grounding, the vessel returned to Friday Harbor. There were no injuries. Repairs cost $273,000, and the vessel was back in service Feb. 5.

For about three minutes before the grounding, the chief mate “could not recall what his attention was focused on,” while he was sitting at the vessel’s two radars, according to the report, written by Capt. Mark McElwaine. The chief mate tested negative for drugs or alcohol, and fatigue was not an issue, according to Mitchell. He had done this route hundreds, if not thousands, of times, according to the report.

It was the chief mate’s last watch before a six-week vacation. When the vessel left Friday Harbor, the chief mate was in command in Sealth’s No. 2 pilothouse, with the quartermaster at the helm. The vessel’s captain was in charge of the No. 1 pilothouse. In cases of rough weather, restricted visibility or an inexperienced chief mate, the captain would have been required to be present in the No. 2 pilothouse, but these conditions did not prevail on Dec. 24, according to the report.

The chief mate made several mistakes leaving Friday Harbor, according to the report:

  • He did not tell the bridge crew, which consisted of the quartermaster and a lookout, what the course would be for the next stop on Lopez Island.

  • He failed to make full use of the vessel’s two radars, a Furuno 2110 and a Furuno 2125. The No. 2 pilothouse also has a gyrocompass, a GPS and a Furuno FA100 Universal Automatic Identification System unit. Both radars were set on head-up true-bearing mode, and the chief mate was not using the video plotting or charting feature available on the Furuno 2125 radar, which would highlight obstacles such as Reid Rock.

  • He monitored the ferry’s course on the radar, without fixing the vessel’s position.

    With no instruction from the chief mate, the quartermaster set the vessel’s course, which was off by about 83°, according to Mitchell. Instead of making a starboard turn once the vessel left Friday Harbor, the vessel traveled an additional 0.6 nm.

    The quartermaster began the starboard turn too late. At 2006, the chief mate noticed the vessel was off course and ordered the quartermaster to go hard right on the rudder, according to the report. The quartermaster became concerned when he saw the flashing green light of the Reid Rock Buoy and asked the chief mate to confirm the hard-right command. The vessel did not reduce speed, passed the buoy to port, and ran directly into Reid Rock at 2007. The chief mate later told investigators he thought he could make the hard right turn and still clear Reid Rock.

    If the mapping function had been used, the chief mate would not have made the decision to turn to starboard, “as it would have been readily apparent that he was going to run over the rock,” according to the report.

    The chief mate had taken WSF courses in bridge resource management, crisis management and navigational aids, including courses on radar and automatic radar plotting aids. In September 2004, the chief mate attended a course on navigational safety and electronic aids, including video plotting.

  • By Professional Mariner Staff