Sternwheeler with 80 people aboard gets stuck on submerged rock in Willamette River

A sternwheel cruise boat ran aground on a rock shelf in Oregon’s Willamette River just before it was to be the first commercial vessel to transit the newly reopened Willamette Falls Locks.

Willamette Queen, with 80 passengers, grounded at 1730 on Feb. 4 in the Willamette Narrows on a prominent rock, mid-channel, that is submerged during high water. Capt. Richard Chesbrough, owner and operator of the 87-foot Willamette Queen, said he was expecting to find a string of small buoys marking this hazard.

“When we entered the narrows, the buoys were missing and a strong current was running,†he said. He had also posted a scout boat ahead to check the depths, and was depending on it to locate the rock. “We were quickly catching up to the scout,†he explained. “To give him more time to get a fix on the rock, I reduced power.â€

Willamette Queen transits the Willamette Falls Locks about two weeks after the vessel had run aground nearby. (Sandy Carter photo)

This caused the sternwheeler to lose steerage, and it was carried by the current onto the rock. Willamette Queen remained stuck for about 90 minutes until the tug Sarah B arrived and pushed it back into the channel. It resumed motoring downstream to the Willamette Falls Locks, escorted by two U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary boats. After a dockside hull inspection by the Coast Guard, the vessel was allowed to pass through the locks the next day without passengers and continue its journey to Portland.

Coast Guard Sector Portland, which was still investigating the grounding in March, said the marker buoys were not scheduled to be in that location at the time of the sternwheeler’s voyage in February. Those buoys are identified as “periodic/intermittent†on electronic charts.

“The 10 buoys in the Rock Island Channel are listed as seasonal on NOAA chart 18528 and in the Light List,†said Chief Petty Officer Ben Smith, an aids-to-navigation official at Astoria. “This year they will be in the water from May 15 to Oct 15.â€

Willamette Queen has a fiberglass hull with a draft of 3 feet, 6 inches. When it was inspected at Diversified Marine’s 750-ton dry dock, the only damage was some abrasions to the 4-inch-thick keel. It returned to its base in Salem, Ore., escorted by the tug.

The 42-foot Sarah B is the last tug based on the upper Willamette River. The Coast Guard responded with a helicopter from Group Astoria and two rigid-hull inflatable boats that were not launched.

Willamette Falls Locks, opened in 1873, were the first multi-lift navigation system in the United States. The Army Corps of Engineers closed the locks because of a lack of funding shortly after Willamette Queen returned to Salem from its January 2008 hull inspection. The gates of the four lock chambers needed to be removed and inspected, and the lack of commercial traffic made this a very low priority for the corps.

By Professional Mariner Staff