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News / Northwest

Captain’s error caused 2022 ferry crash in West Seattle, probe says

By Mike Lindblom, The Seattle Times
Published: March 31, 2023, 7:31am

SEATTLE — Washington State Ferries has concluded that a captain’s “loss of situational awareness,” and not any mechanical failures, caused the vessel Cathlamet to veer off course and crash near the Fauntleroy dock last summer.

The 328-foot-long ferry smacked into a vertical bundle of pilings, also called a dolphin, then nearly ran aground on the beach. Portions of the upper car and passenger decks crumpled on impact, causing $7.7 million in damages. The Cathlamet was out of service for eight months.

The captain resigned one day after the July 28, 2022, crash, after a long career in which he started as a deckhand in 1985.

The U.S. Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board are still probing the incident, and a ferry spokesperson said state officials won’t answer questions pending those investigations. The names of all crew were redacted in the 17-page state report released Thursday.

As the incident unfolded during the trip from Vashon Island to West Seattle, the captain was at the helm of the Cathlamet, as is expected within a half-mile of reaching the Fauntleroy terminal. Colleagues said he preferred to approach Fauntleroy from the south and maneuver slightly north into the berth, instead of taking a “straight shot.”

The ferry was carrying more than 50 passengers.

Diagrams in the report show the boat stayed south, and did not slow, until it stuck the south dolphin at 8:14 a.m. The Cathlamet was moving at a speed of 15 knots at impact.

WSF can’t pinpoint why the captain “lost awareness,” because he declined to answer questions on the advice of his attorney, the report said. Post-crash tests found no sign of drug or alcohol use.

“His asking, ‘What happened?’ to his quartermaster supports that he was unaware of the situation while navigating,” the report said.

After impact a watch captain, who happened to be in a stateroom, went forward into the pilothouse, took the controls, reversed the ferry away from the beach and took it to the dock. One passenger sustained minor injuries and one vehicle was damaged.

The boat was fully staffed with Coast Guard-qualified deckhands and navigating officers. However, a quartermaster was distracted from lookout duty while reading an agency report about the Clinton-to-Mukilteo route, the report said.

The state agency also reported that its training for deck officers meets domestic requirements but falls short of international standards for oceangoing ships, which emphasize the navigators’ exact roles and responsibilities, along with extensive safety drills. This higher standard was discontinued in 2012 to save money but will be reinstated in summer 2023, ferry officials wrote.

Data recorders have been installed on the Cathlamet and are on order for the whole fleet, the report said. The state will also consider “psychometric wellness checks with WSF captains, like current cruise ship practices,” an agency statement said.

In their 71-year history, the state ferries have recorded few crashes and there’s never been a passenger fatality. The ferry system carried 17.4 million people in eight corridors last year.

A recruiting drive and multimillion-dollar investments in on-the-job training are underway to cope with a longtime shortage of mariners, which as recently as this week led to cancellation of some San Juan Islands sailings. Contributing to the shortage were unstable schedules, an aging workforce and people who resigned rather than comply with state COVID vaccination mandates in fall 2021.

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