New navigator on watch when ship hit rock

Investigators say inexperienced crew member was navigating Empress at time of grounding

Posted: Sunday, December 23, 2007

A riverboat-style cruise ship that ran aground last spring did so under the watch of a 22-year-old navigator fresh out of a maritime academy with no training and no formal knowledge of the Alaska waters being plied, according to federal investigators.

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On Friday, the National Transportation Safety Board released a preliminary report from the mid-May accident about 50 nautical miles - or 25 miles as the crow flies - southwest of Juneau.

The report produced no conclusions or analysis but included an account of the incident and interviews with crew members. A final report could take another six to eight months, an NTSB spokesman said.

The 360-foot Empress of the North ran aground in the early morning hours of May 14. It occurred on the second day of a seven-day cruise. The ship hit the submerged portion of a charted rock, then drifted a few miles from the shoal.

The accident forced the evacuation of 206 passengers - one of whom likened the incident to a "bad remake of the 'Titanic"' movie - and a portion of the ship's 75-member crew.

The impact ripped several holes in the ship's hull and damaged one of the propellers used in steering the ship.

Investigators learned that one of the ship's new employees took over as navigator about 36 hours after embarking on his first voyage with the ship owned by Seattle-based Majestic America Line.

A company spokeswoman said Majestic America Line could not comment because the investigation remains open.

Investigators interviewed newly hired Marino Cattiotti and other crew members over several days after the accident, according to the report.

They learned Cattiotti was assigned a four-hour watch to run through 4 a.m. because another navigator was ill.

Cattiotti told investigators he was not familiar with the ship's route. He had been in the waters previously as a passenger on a larger ship that allowed him on the bridge during the day, the report said.

According to the transcript, investigators asked: "So you'd never been on a bridge in these waters at night?"

"No, never," Cattiotti responded.

"On any vessel?" investigators asked.

"On any vessel," Cattiotti responded.

Cattiotti was then asked: "Did you get any, any route familiarization discussion from any of the deck officers? Other than watch out for the current, any other information about things to look out for, about obstructions, hazards, and so on?"

He replied, "No."

Later in the interview, investigators asked Cattiotti about training.

One investigator asked about the "chance to do any sort of training with the ship at all."

Cattiotti replied "No, none."

Cattiotti was then asked, "How about drills," and he replied, "No, no drills, zero."

Investigators also interviewed six of Cattiotti's instructors at the California Maritime Academy, where the crew member earned a bachelor's degree in marine transportation.

They told investigators Cattiotti's class performance was "in the middle, except for an instructor in ship handling who described his skills as excellent."

The report also stated the instructors "believe that, in general, placing a recent graduate of the school with no watch experience outside of a training environment, on watch, at night, in pilotage waters, in an unfamiliar vessel, without any additional preparation and/or supervision, was imprudent."

Cattiotti's Juneau-based attorney Tom Batchelor was present during the interview. He said he has not seen the report and declined to comment.

The 360-foot ship is less than half the size of the average cruise ship in the Caribbean and is dwarfed by most other cruise other ships off the Alaska coast.

The American-built ship has been billed by the company as the only overnight paddlewheel vessel in use on Alaska cruises.

The Empress of the North is also used on cruises on the Columbia River between the states of Washington and Oregon.

The NTSB report also highlighted three previous Empress of the North accidents, including two in 2003 and one last year.

The ship has 112 state rooms, a four-story paddlewheel and galleries featuring American Indian masks and Russian artwork, including Faberge eggs, according to the company's Web site.

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