Report Blames Current, Maneuvering Error For Ferry Crash

The Alaska Marine Highway has concluded that a strong tidal current and a maneuvering error by the captain of the state ferry Matanuska resulted in the May 7 crash with a seafood processing plant in Petersburg.

The 408-foot passenger ferry rammed into the Ocean Beauty Seafoods plant, gashing the wood and concrete dock and the cannery building. The AMHS came out with the results of its internal investigation of the accident on Thursday.

Ferry system chief Mike Neussl says the Matanuska’s captain tried to get out of a strong tidal current pushing it south in the Wrangell Narrows toward the Petersburg’s ferry terminal.

“He was attempting to maneuver the ship over to the Petersburg town side of the channel to get into that back eddy area where there’s less current that’s pushing him rapidly towards the marine highway dock, so he can slow down and make a more controlled approach into the marine highway dock. Unfortunately the maneuver he executed was a pretty severe left hand turn to get out of the main channel over to the Petersburg town side and then even with full right rudder and differential thrust on the shafts could not get back to make a right hand turn to turn away from that dock and parallel the town side,” Neussl said.

The report says the master at the time of the accident Scott Macauley is one of the most experienced ship handlers in the fleet, with over 29 years of deck officer experience.

The accident happened just after 1 p.m. on May 7, about two hours before high tide, and it was one of the bigger tides of the month. The current in the Wrangell Narrows at the time of the crash was estimated around 4-5 knots.

The vessel’s crew members underwent mandatory alcohol and drug testing following the incident and results came back negative.

Mechanical problems did not factor into the crash. However the marine highway investigation noted concern by prior captains that the Matanuska’s steering is less responsive than sister ships, the Taku and Malaspina.

Neussl says the Marine Highway will take steps to avoid a similar accident in the future.

“The whole purpose of this investigation really is to learn lessons, what happened how it happened why it happened and then to spread that information amongst the rest of the fleet so they can consider that in their future ship maneuvers. So this report will be distributed to the rest of our deck officers and captains with emphasis on paying attention to those potentially somewhat unknown environmental conditions. I mean the currents I think were a big factor in this incident,” Neussl said.

The term for this type of accident is an allision, where a moving object strikes a stationary one. Neussl also points out accidents are rare for the ferry system.

“I think in the last 28 years we’ve had 14 of these types of allisions over the course of like 200,000 moorings and then another 200,000 unmooring evolutions that you have the potential to have this happen at. So a pretty rare occurrence but obviously when it happens it’s got some serious consequences. We’re fortunate the consequences were not worse in this case. Property damage is not something that’s desirable, but no injuries, no loss of life, nothing like that, so we were fortunate.”

Ocean Beauty decided not to operate its processing plant in the building this summer because of the accident.

The U.S. Coast Guard has not yet completed a separate investigation.