Whale-watching boat with 76 passengers runs aground off Wash.

The U.S. Coast Guard is investigating what caused a whale-watching boat with 76 passengers aboard to run aground and take on water off the coast of Washington state.

An inflatable transfers occupants from the aground whale-watching boat Odyssey, while sister vessel Western Prince II, at left, approaches to evacuate more passengers. (Courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)

The 65-foot Odyssey, based in Friday Harbor, Wash., was returning from an afternoon cruise July 15 when it struck Leo Reef north of Lopez Island shortly before 1700, the Coast Guard reported.

At about 1830, crewmen from Coast Guard Cutter Swordfish boarded Odyssey to inspect it for damage and found that it was taking on water at the rate of about 1 gallon per minute, the Coast Guard said.

“There was damage to the keel and some of the hull planking, but the vessel was not holed,†said Lt. Cmdr. Matthew Denning, senior investigating officer at Coast Guard Sector Seattle.

Recreational vessels — including two inflatables and the whale-watching boat Western Prince II — evacuated Odyssey’s passengers, who were then taken to Friday Harbor. Denning said no injuries were reported and no pollution was evident.

Peter Ancich, vice president of San Juan Excursions, the company that owns Odyssey, confirmed that the boat’s keel was damaged, but would not comment on the cost to repair it. The vessel was out of service for about a week, he said.

Neither Ancich nor Denning would comment on the cause of the grounding, which was under investigation by the Coast Guard. Skies were clear at the time of the accident, with 5- to 10-knot winds and 1-foot seas.

Odyssey, which has a draft of 5 feet, ran aground in 3 or 4 feet of water at three-quarters tide, Ancich said. No mechanical or navigational equipment problems were reported before the accident. The captain was familiar with the waters and the boat was not out of its normal area of operations, Ancich said.

Odyssey initially radioed Swordfish, which was visible about a mile away, but did not request assistance. Swordfish and the buoy tender Henry Blake stood by to render assistance if necessary, the Coast Guard said.

“Good Samaritan vessels were on the scene in a matter of minutes,†Denning said. “Swordfish responded, but did not evacuate any passengers.â€

The subsequent inspection revealed that the whale-watching vessel was never in danger of sinking.

“My guys determined the damage was minor,†said Lt. Orion Bloom, Swordfish’s commanding officer. “The boat’s bilge pumps were able to keep up with it.â€

Two of Odyssey’s four crewmembers stayed on board to wait for the rising tide to lift the boat off the reef, which occurred a couple of hours later, Denning said. Odyssey proceeded to Friday Harbor, then to a commercial facility in Anacortes, Wash., for further inspection.

Denning said the boarding officer from Swordfish administered a Breathalyzer test to the captain of Odyssey, who later voluntarily took a drug test. Both tests were negative. •

Rich Miller

By Professional Mariner Staff