Master beaches tour boat after wave breaks window and damages bridge electronics

The captain of a Lake Michigan tour boat intentionally grounded the vessel after a wave blew out a window and caused the boat's electronics to malfunction, forcing passengers to exit by ladder and wade ashore.

The 55-foot Pictured Rocks, operated by Sleeping Bear Dunes Cruises of Frankfort, Mich., was heading back to port during a sunset sightseeing cruise July 25, 2011, when it took a wave over the bow at about 2020, the U.S. Coast Guard reported. The captain radioed for help and, uncertain of the extent of the damage to the vessel, grounded it on a sand beach near Empire.

"The steering and propulsion were still operational, which allowed the operator to beach the vessel,” said Coast Guard Lt. Kevin McDonald, executive officer at Sector Field Office Grand Haven.

Visibility was good at the time of the incident, with 4-foot waves and 15- to 20-knot winds, McDonald said.

The Coast Guard dispatched two MH-65 Dolphin helicopters to the scene along with a 25-foot response boat, which was already underway from Station Frankfort on a training exercise. The boat arrived at 2103, followed by the first helicopter from Air Station Traverse City at 2118.

Coast Guard personnel and the three-man crew of Pictured Rocks assisted 59 passengers down the ladder at the boat's stern and through shallow water to shore. Two passengers who had pre-existing medical conditions and couldn't descend the ladder were lifted off the boat by helicopter. All of the passengers were wearing personal flotation devices, McDonald said.

Once ashore, the passengers walked to a nearby road and were taken to Frankfort in vans provided by a local kayak rental company. The Coast Guard reported that some passengers sustained minor cuts and scrapes from the broken window on the boat.

John Madigan, owner of Sleeping Bear Dunes Cruises, said the captain decided to ground Pictured Rocks because it was still 12 miles from port and he didn't know how much damage it had sustained. The captain could not be reached for comment.

"It was just a safety issue," Madigan said. "He put everything into his calculations and figured it was best to put it up on the sand."

A local excavator helped refloat the boat the next day by digging around it, allowing water to reach the hull. A tug from Luedtke Engineering Co., of Frankfort, pulled the boat free at 1700 and towed it back to port.

McDonald said an initial inspection on the beach revealed minimal damage to the tour boat's hull, but the rudders, front windows, helm and electronics appeared to have sustained "notable damage." Madigan described the damage as minor, saying he couldn't provide details, pending a thorough inspection.

"The props are fine, the shafts are fine. We had to put new rudders on because they got hung up in the sand,” Madigan said. "The boat's in dry dock right now for winter. We haven't really done anything to it since the day it happened."

By Professional Mariner Staff