Stern-wheel cruise ship hits rock in Alaska, forcing evacuation of 248 passengers

The Coast Guard Cutter Liberty sits alongside Empress of the North as it takes on passengers from the stricken cruise vessel. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Empress of the North, a 360-foot riverboat-style cruise ship, ran aground after striking an island about 49 miles west of Juneau, Alaska, on May 14.

After striking Rocky Island, a small outcrop in Icy Strait, the ship drifted toward Hanus Reef and grounded. There were 248 passengers and 33 crew aboard.

There were no injuries or pollution reported in connection with the accident, which occurred at about 0200.

The cruise ship notified the U.S. Coast Guard via radio of the grounding. Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak responded by launching a C-130 aircraft crew and also deployed an HH-60 helicopter crew from Cordova, Alaska. Good Samaritan vessels also responded, including the Alaska Marine Highway ferry Columbia and local fishing boats. The Coast Guard Cutter Liberty was also called to the scene along with a barge and tug to help with the evacuation of passengers.

The passengers, after being transferred to Liberty and Columbia, were taken to Juneau, where they arrived at 1030.

Shortly after the passengers were transferred, Empress of the North was able to work itself free using its own propulsion, and it returned to Juneau under its own power about 10 hours after grounding. All the crewmembers remained aboard for the trip to Juneau. From Juneau the Coast Guard escorted the ship to Auke Bay, where the Coast Guard surveyed the vessel for damage.

Investigators for the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) arrived the following day to conduct their own investigation.

Empress of the North shown leaving Seattle during its first year of operation in 2003. The vessel has been involved in several casualties since going into service, including striking a lock on the Snake River in 2003 and grounding in the Columbia River in 2003 and 2006. (American West Steamboat Co.)

Keith Holloway, an inspector for the NTSB, said the vessel was en route from Skagway to Glacier Bay when it struck Rocky Island, west of Admiralty Island. Rocky Island is marked by a lighted aid to navigation.

“After they hit the island, the Empress of the North drifted south toward Hanus Reef,” a small reef that is also lighted and awash at half-tide, Holloway said. “They drifted because they were not sure if they did any damage.”

After drifting 3.26 nautical miles, the vessel grounded on the reef. It was here that the distress call to the Coast Guard was made. Holloway said at the time of the grounding the wind and seas were calm. He also said visibility was not a factor in the grounding. “There was a third mate and a helmsman on the bridge standing the 12-to-4 watch when the vessel grounded,” Holloway said.

According to Christine Klimkowski, a former mate aboard a similar small southeast Alaska cruise ship, “For southeast Alaska (where they grounded), there is a lot of sea room. Even if he went between the island and the mainland, there would have been plenty of room … and it’s clear here this time of year.”

Cutter Liberty took on 130 of the 248 passengers from Empress of the North and transferred them to the Alaska State ferry Columbia, which then transported them to Juneau. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Klimkowski currently works as a third mate for Totem Ocean Trailer Express, Inc. (TOTE) in Tacoma, Wash.

Empress of the North is owned by Majestic America Line of Seattle, a company formed by the merger of American West Steamboat Co. and Delta Queen Steamboat Co. Since its launch in 2002, Empress of the North has had a history of groundings and allisions.
Those incidents include:

• On Oct. 22, 2003, striking a navigation lock at the Ice Harbor dam on the Snake River near Pasco, Wash. The incident left the lock closed to all traffic for two days and recreational traffic for five weeks.

• On Nov. 27, 2003, grounding on the Columbia River near Dalles, Ore., when the vessel developed steering problems. One passenger and two crewmembers were injured.

• On March 24, 2006, grounding on a sandbar in the Columbia River while maneuvering to avoid a collision near Washougal, Wash. The accident forced the evacuation of 200 passengers and necessitated the removal of 20,000 gallons of diesel fuel before the vessel could be refloated with the aid of two tugs.

Other non-navigation related problems aboard the vessel include a failed health inspection by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention after passengers complained of vomiting and diarrhea. The CDC cited the vessel for poor hygienic food practices and improper food storage.

The most recent grounding remains under investigation by the Coast Guard and the NTSB.

By Professional Mariner Staff