Puerto Rico ferry loses steerage, then sails in circles for 90 minutes

A Puerto Rico ferry lost steering and traveled in circles for 90 minutes until a tow arrived.

Fajardo II had a rudder malfunction at 2100 on Jan. 2 as it was traveling from Culebra Island to Fajardo, Puerto Rico, about eight miles from the coast of Culebra. Seas were between 5 and 7 feet and the wind was 10 knots from the northwest, according to Ricardo Castrodad, spokesman for U.S. Coast Guard Sector San Juan.

The master of the vessel kept the ferry going in circles rather than stopping because of the impact of the rough seas on a stationary vessel, according to Castrodad.

Fajardo II, built in 1996, is an 87-foot-long ferry that makes two or three trips daily between Fajardo and Culebra Island. Its capacity is 242 passengers. On Jan. 2 it was carrying 59 people and four crewmembers.

Although the 110-foot Coast Guard cutters Farallon and Matinicus were sent to assist the ferry, the cargo ferry Isleña came out and towed Fajardo II back to Culebra Harbor.

Fajardo II and Isleña are operated by the Maritime Transportation Authority of Puerto Rico, which provides ferry service to the islands of Culebra and Vieques and in San Juan Bay.

Isleña towed the passenger ferry to within one mile of the pier at Culebra Harbor, according to Castrodad.

For safety reasons, the Coast Guard ordered the ferry to wait until daylight to dock and unload passengers. Part of the problem is that the pier at the ferry terminal in Culebra Harbor broke off during Hurricane Earl. The only way to approach the current temporary facility is laterally, which the cargo ferry could not do, according to Castrodad. Also, the master of Isleña is not trained for towing operations.

“They had to turn the boat in a very tight space, and if you are off a little bit, you are going to ground one of those vessels,†he said. “If you ground one of those vessels, you shut down the passenger terminal.â€

On the morning of Jan. 3, the cutter Farallon towed Fajardo II to the pier. Farallon docked alongside the pier, and starting at 1003, passengers left from the ferry and crossed over the cutter to get to land.

Castrodad said the cause of the steering failure is still under investigation. Maritime Authority officials won’t comment until the probe is completed, said Mabel Sanabria, special aide to the executive director. The Maritime Authority also wouldn’t disclose the nature of the repair or which shipyard did the job.

David A. Tyler

By Professional Mariner Staff