New crew miscalculated in Icy Strait, officials say

Investigation into grounding continues

Posted: Thursday, May 17, 2007

When the crew navigating the Empress of the North turned west out of Lynn Canal on a heading for Swenson Harbor, they miscalculated the 90-degree turn, according to authorities.

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"They realized they were heading straight for Rocky Island," National Transportation and Safety Board member Kitty Higgins said. "They didn't correct enough and struck the island."

The crew of the Empress, on their second voyage, were new to the waters of Southeast Alaska, Higgins said

Earlier reports said the 360-foot paddelwheeler ran aground at Hanus Reef.

After tearing holes in the starboard outer hull of the Empress and damaging the drive system, the ship, with 281 people aboard, actually drifted for two miles before reaching Hanus Reef, the investigators said.

The captain alerted the Coast Guard, Higgins said. The distress call went out at 1:35 a.m.

The third mate and the navigator were on duty at the time of the navigation error. "That is a standard watch level and both were qualified," Higgins said.

"The captain determines the course," Higgins said.

NTSB investigators are looking into the experience level of the crew along with the previous grounding and collisions the young ship has suffered since its 2003 construction.

Drug and alcohol tests are under way for the crew, Higgins said.

"All were properly licensed," Higgins said. "I understand that qualifies them."

The NTSB is reviewing the voyage data recording. The system records the heading, speed and location of the ship. Additionally the data recorder captures conversations on the bridge.

• Greg Skinner can be reached at

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