Historic whale-watching vessel avoids sinking after grounding on rock

A 78-year-old wooden whale-watching cruise boat ran aground on a rock and almost rolled onto its side in Alaska’s Inside Passage. The captain said a quick duct-tape job may have prevented his vessel from sinking.

The 74-foot Catalyst, with 12 people aboard, was sailing amid the best whale activity of the season when it ground to a halt on a submerged rock near Robert Island, south of Juneau. The accident happened at 1015 on July 6 about one-third of a mile off a point.

The captain said he misjudged his position while excited passengers were on the bridge with him, and his electronic chart may not have been at the optimal setting.

All nine passengers were safely transferred to shore aboard the cruise boat’s skiff, said Lt. Cmdr. Marc Randolph, a U.S. Coast Guard investigator at Sector Juneau. Catalyst remained grounded for about eight hours and listed to starboard as much as 40° while the captain battled encroaching seawater.

“They were watching whales at the time the accident occurred,” Randolph said. After it got stuck, “the ship had a list. The vessel did take on water. However, when the currents changed and the tide came, it refloated, and the boat drained itself out.”

The wooden-hull vessel grounded in an area near where Port Houghton meets Stephens Passage, outside of a shipping channel used by large cruise ships, said Scott Giard, deputy chief of the Coast Guard’s sector command center. There are no aids to navigation marking hazards along Robert Island.

Catalyst‘s captain, Bill Bailey, told Professional Mariner that a combination of unfortunate events led to the grounding and near loss of the vintage adventure vessel. Bailey was familiar with the rock and knew he was near it. He said his situational awareness may have been compromised, because passengers were in the wheelhouse admiring the amazing sight.

“There were whales all over the place — all around my boat and all around the rock,” Bailey said. “I had guests on the bridge, so there were distractions … and I should have been more proactive in settling them down, and I didn’t do that.”

The depth sounder indicated safe water for Catalyst, whose draft is 9 feet 4 inches.

The rock normally appears as an asterisk on the electronic chart display, Bailey said.

For some reason, the chart wasn’t set on normal defaults and the hazard was obscured.

“I think it was zoomed in so much that the boat covered the asterisk,” he said.

Catalyst, which was built in 1932, was traveling at half-speed — 5 knots — with a crew of three. Bailey first discovered he was too close to the rock when he noticed floating weeds that he realized must have been attached to something under the surface. “As soon as I realized that the kelp wasn’t moving, I put the wheel hard-over and then I went hard astern. It just had too much momentum to stop,” he said.

After evacuating the passengers to the island, Bailey waged an all-out effort to save his boat from capsizing and flooding. The vessel heeled 30 to 40° to starboard; and unfortunately the fuel tanks were full, so Bailey couldn’t transfer fuel to right the ship. Water started seeping in through portholes and deck stanchions, too far from the automatic bilge pumps.

“I was concerned the boat would lay over,” Bailey said. “All the vents are up fairly high, and as we started to roll and continued to roll, I duct-taped all the doors shut from the outside, and I think that’s what saved the boat. With the boat heeled over that far, it was pretty treacherous. (The water) was within eight inches of reaching the lowest ventilator.”

Once the rising tide refloated Catalyst, it sailed to Petersburg, Alaska, under Coast Guard orders, Randolph said. After an inspection, Petersburg Shipwrights Inc. replaced some outside planking. The vessel was back in service two days after the accident.

Catalyst‘s owner is Pacific Catalyst II Inc. Its homeport is Friday Harbor, Wash. The Seattle-built wooden boat was the University of Washington’s first oceanographic research vessel and also was used as a supply vessel for the Alaska mining industry.

Randolph said the Coast Guard is still investigating the causes of the grounding, which happened during a five-day cruise.

Dom Yanchunas

By Professional Mariner Staff