Electrical problems hound Columbia

Posted: Tuesday, September 03, 2002

A generator failure and switchboard problem plagued the state ferry Columbia over the weekend, prompting emergency repairs and some schedule changes, according to the Alaska Marine Highway System.

The ferry lost power for about three minutes at 8 p.m. Saturday night south of Ketchikan until the ship's emergency generator came on line, according to AMHS General Manager George Capacci. The problem was traced to a loose wire and was caused by normal "wear and tear," he said.

The emergency generator powered vital systems and provided limited light for about 50 minutes while the crew trouble-shot the problem, Capacci said. After 50 minutes, the two other generators were turned on.

"Technically the ship was without propulsion (for three minutes) but there are emergency procedures," he said. "It was a serious situation, which is why the Coast Guard investigates, but it wasn't an extremely dangerous situation."

After an inspection in Ketchikan, the Coast Guard gave the ship permission to travel to Juneau for repairs, said Lt. Bill Jeffries of the Coast Guard's Marine Safety Office.

"We evaluated what their propulsion capabilities were in the case they lost another generator and evaluated the safety factors involved and determined it was safe to proceed to Juneau," he said.

The Columbia has three regular generators plus an emergency generator. It uses one generator most of the time, running two generators when it travels in and out of port and through the Wrangell Narrows, Capacci said. Passengers were sent to muster areas, or gathering spots on board, during the outage.

Crew members also found a problem with the ship's switchboard during the trip. Once in Juneau, a team of manufacturing representatives and engineers determined a groundfault indicator's sensitivity was set too low and corrected the problem, Capacci said.

Meanwhile, the Malaspina stayed in Juneau an extra two hours Monday morning to take 251 northbound Columbia passengers to Haines and Skagway. The Columbia made it to Skagway later that day to pick up southbound passengers on schedule, Capacci said.

"The Coast Guard cleared us to sail and the ship went on its merry way later in the day," he said. "It was good to have the Columbia back in service right away."

The Columbia is the largest vessel in the fleet and runs from Bellingham to Skagway and back during the summer. It was off-line for the first half of 2001 for $1.5 million in switchboard repairs stemming from a 2000 fire and $10 million in stateroom renovations.

Joanna Markell can be reached at joannam@juneauempire.com.

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