Report cites speed, sonar, chart correction as issues in Arctic cruise ship grounding

A cruise ship that ran aground in the Northwest Passage in 2010 with 128 people on board was traveling at nearly full speed through poorly-charted seas, even though its forward-looking sonar was broken, Canadian authorities said.

Investigators found that crew aboard Clipper Adventurer cut corners while planning that leg of the voyage, leaving them unaware that the shelf had been discovered — though not yet corrected on navigational charts — nearly three years earlier, according to an April report issued by the Transportation Safety Board (TSB) of Canada.

“Without the valuable information available from a functional forward-looking sonar, and given the hazards inherent in navigating inadequately surveyed areas, the vessel’s speed of 13.9 knots was probably not prudent,” the report said.

However, investigators criticized the Canadian government’s method for notifying mariners about hazards that have been discovered but not formally listed in the latest maritime charts. A new chart showing the underwater shoal was issued in June 2012.

“Our investigation determined there were problems with the vessel’s voyage planning but we also found that key safety information was not being proactively provided to vessels transiting the Arctic,” Eric Asselin, the TSB investigator-in-charge, said in a press release.

“Traffic in these fragile waters is increasing. Given the remoteness and unique navigation challenges, when vessels enter Arctic waters it is essential they know about hazards to navigation,” he continued.

The 331-foot Bahamas-flagged cruise ship was chartered by the tour company Adventure Canada when it ran aground in Coronation Gulf at about 1910 on Aug. 27, 2010. At that time, the ship was 16 days into a 17-day voyage from Greenland to Nunavut, when the accident occurred.

In a statement, Adventure Canada said it was “satisfied” that the report “will lead to improvements in the system for updating and identifying navigational hazards on charts, including the method of recording and disseminating information concerning known or potential hazards.”

Company spokesman Clayton Anderson declined to comment beyond what was said in the press release.

Passengers were offloaded from the stranded vessel onto the Canadian Coast Guard ship Amundsen two days later and taken to Kugluktuk, Nunavut. Clipper Adventurer’s hull suffered substantial damage in the accident. It was refloated on Sept. 14, 2010, and ultimately towed to Poland for repairs. Nobody was injured.

The shoal was first discovered in 2007 by a Canadian Coast Guard research vessel, but its presence was not listed on official nautical charts until this year. Instead, Canadian authorities issued a Notice to Shipping warning in 2007 about the underwater formation that was still active when Clipper Adventurer struck it.

Three-dimensional imagery of the shoal shows the formation rising sharply from the seabed. Within a few meters, water depths go from about 75 meters to about three meters at the shoal’s highest point.

Adventure Owner Ltd., which owns the vessel, last year filed a lawsuit against the Canadian government claiming it should have been made aware of the shoal. The company is seeking about $15 million in damages. The Canadian Coast Guard filed a lawsuit earlier this year against Adventure Owner seeking up to $500,000 related to environmental impacts from the 2010 accident.

During the 18-month investigation, Canadian authorities uncovered several problems with the voyage, including the crew’s decision to follow an “inadequately surveyed” single line of soundings even though its forward-looking sonar wasn’t working.

“With the forward-looking sonar unserviceable, the vessel relied on the echo-sounder to monitor the accuracy of the charted soundings. However, the echo-sounder provided the depth beneath the vessel and not the depth ahead. As a consequence, the vessel struck the shoal at full sea speed, damaging the hull and the propulsion machinery,” the report states.

Investigators determined that bridge crew aboard the cruise ship never sought out potential warnings about the route, including Notice to Shipping warnings, while completing their voyage plan, according to the report. Meanwhile, the crew was never explicitly warned about the shoal by Canadian maritime authorities.

The report notes that the Canadian Hydrographic Service, which issues official nautical charts, did not correct its chart to show the shoal — even though it could have. The lack of an updated chart for the region “(deprived) the bridge team on the Clipper Adventurer of one possible source of critical information,” according to the report.

The vessel’s speed was also cited as a factor in the accident, as was the vessel’s management company, which investigators said “did not provide the vessel’s staff with safeguards to mitigate well-known risks.”

According to the report, those risks include “revision of the voyage plan in conjunction with the management company; assurance that the forward-looking sonar unit was operable; use of the zodiacs with portable echo-sounders when necessary; assurance that the vessel transited at lower speed when operating in poorly charted areas; and acquisition of local navigation warnings.”

Starting with the 2012 sailing season, the Canadian Coast Guard has begun “proactively” alerting vessels to potential hazards in Arctic waters, including Notice to Shipping warnings.

Starting in 2013, the Canadian Hydrographic Service will establish a procedure to update navigational charts in the Arctic when a hazard to navigation is discovered by a credible source — as was the case when the shoal was first discovered in 2007.

“Our goal is to improve marine safety,” said Asselin. “I can say with certainty that this investigation will lead to improved safety in Canada’s Arctic waters.”

By Professional Mariner Staff