The Alaska Marine Highway System has concluded that a strong tidal current and a maneuvering error by the captain of the state ferry Matanuska resulted in the May 7th crash with a seafood processing plant in Petersburg. The accident shut down the Ocean Beauty Seafood cannery for this year.

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The 408-foot passenger ferry rammed into the Ocean Beauty plant just after 1 p.m. on May 7th, smashing the wood and concrete dock and the cannery building. The AMHS came out this month with the results of its internal investigation of the accident.

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 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,” Neussl says. “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.”

The report says the vessel’s 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 about two hours before that afternoon’s high tide; 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,” he says. “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.”

The investigation relied on crew member testimony as well as audio recordings and data from the ferry. The report says the crew was not negligent in its duties and took the right actions to try and slow the vessel as it hit the cannery.

The state’s report finds, “Initially, there was no public address warning to passengers since the Master fully expected to turn to starboard and miss the dock. By the time it was apparent that a starboard turn would not happen, the Master became focused on trying to minimize the damage by adjusting the engines to full astern and there was no time to issue a warning over the PA system.”

The report recommends administrative actions for the crew but says internal personnel matters would not be made public. The ferry sustained only scraped paint and some dents.

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-thousand moorings and then another 200-thousand unmooring evolutions that you have the potential to have this happen at,” Neussl says. “So a pretty rare occurrence but obviously when it happens its 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.”

Alexis Kenyon, KFSK

Ocean Beauty decided not to operate its processing plant in the building this summer because of the accident. The company’s vice president of marketing Tom Sunderland says they plan to have the plant open again in 2013 but didn’t have an opinion on the state’s conclusions. “We’re just hopeful that the state and the various authorities who were involved can come to some conclusion quickly and accurately that allows us to operate next year,” Sunderland says. “The city and the state have been great to us. They really have been tremendous in how they’ve responded and this really isn’t an issue of ours. We’re just hoping that this leads toward a quick resolution that will allow us to do everything on time for next year. Sunderland says Ocean Beauty is doing repair work to the cannery this year and won’t have a dollar amount for the damage until after that work is complete.

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