Captain Lost “Situational Awareness” Causing $7.7M Damage to Ferry

Washington ferry accident
Ferry suffered $7.7 million in damage when the captain lost awareness the structure approaching the dock (Washington State Ferries)

Published Apr 3, 2023 4:36 PM by The Maritime Executive

An initial report has been released detailing the July 2022 allision of Washington State Ferries’ vessel that caused an estimated $7.7 million worth of damage after it struck a piling as it approaches its pier near Seattle. The report concludes it was human error but can not provide details because the captain at the helm has refused to cooperate and instead resigned from the company. The Washington State Department of Transportation however proceeded with a series of safety upgrades in advance of separate reports which are still pending from the U.S. Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board.

The incident occurred on July 28, 2022, as the ferry Cathlamet was approaching the Fauntleroy Ferry Terminal near Seattle after a trip from the Vashon Island Ferry Terminal.  The weather was clear with negligible wind and an ebbing tide when at 8:13 a.m. the vessel struck the south dolphin as it was approaching its berth at the end of an approximately 10-minute trip. There was one minor injury to a passenger, however, one vehicle was extensively damaged in addition to the structural damage to the ferry. The dolphin it hit was sheared off with additional damage to the surrounding structure.

Washington State Ferries launched its internal investigation in addition to the USCG and NTSB. They interviewed the crew and report that in addition to the crew on duty a second captain and crew were aboard who provided additional information. One of the challenges for the investigation was that the vessel at the time lacked a Voyage Data Recorder.

Piecing together the details they report “the Cathlamet had an allision with the south dolphin at FAU dock at approximately 15 knots.”  The captain on duty assumed direct control over the maneuvering of the vessel in preparation for the landing at a position approximately 0.5 nautical miles off the terminal which was customary and up to that point all the settings were found to be as they should have been on the equipment and position of the rudder.

“The Cathlamet did not slow its speed as it approached the FAU dock per the Safety Management System and prudent navigation,” WSF writes in its report. After the allision, the Quartermaster reports the captain asked, “what happened?” 

The second captain aboard the vessel who was due to take command shortly after the accident was in the cabin at the time of the accident and told investigators, “When the allision happened, I knew immediately that it wasn’t just a bump off a wing wall.” He rushed to the bridge where he found the captain attempting to back the ferry out after it had briefly grounded. The second captain relieved the captain and maneuvered the vessel to the dock.

“It can be concluded that the captain lost situational awareness while standing at the helm landing the vessel,” the WSF report resolved. They have been unable to determine why, noting that the unnamed captain resigned the next day and has not provided an explanation as to what happened. They also found that the Quartermaster was distracted from his primary responsibility of acting as a lookout because he was reading a report and that the captain failed to log actions that were part of the docking procedure.

Drug and alcohol tests were conducted and came back negative and the vessel which was built in 1981 was found to functioning normally with no mechanical issues meaning the cause of the accident is currently subject to speculation. The USCG and NTSB reports expected at a later date might provide additional details.

Washington State Ferries however did find that cost-cutting had reduced some non-mandatory training which shall be reinstated starting in the summer of 2023. As a result of the internal investigation, additional policies and training are under development, while a safety notice reinforcing landing procedures was immediately sent following the event. In addition, “black box” data recorders have been installed aboard the Cathlamet and will become standard equipment on all Washington State ferries.