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Cruise Ship Back in Juneau Port

May 14, 2007 | Seattle Times

A cruise ship that ran aground 49 miles west of Juneau near Hanus Reef in Lynn Canal overnight has arrived at a Juneau harbor for inspection, officials said.

All of the ship's passengers arrived after 11 a.m. Alaska Daylight Time at the Auke Bay ferry dock, said Mike Chambers, a spokesman for the Alaska Marine Highway System, which operates the ferry.

The cruise ship, the Empress of the North, was carrying 206 passengers and 75 crew when it left Juneau on Saturday for a seven-day trip, said Dan Miller, a spokesman for Seattle-based Majestic America Line. The 223-guest ship is based in Portland and also offers trips along the Columbia and Snake Rivers.

A Coast Guard official said there were no reports of injuries or fuel spill or any pollution from the ship.

The Empress sent a distress signal at 12:35 a.m. Alaska Daylight Time after hitting the rocks, said Coast Guard Petty Officer Christopher McLaughlin. Sea conditions were calm at the time.

Numerous vessels came to the aid of the cruise ship and took passengers aboard.

"The fishing vessels Evening Star and Willow were able to moor up to the cruise ship and 33 passengers transferred from the Empress of the North to the Evening Star and 12 passengers to the Willow," McLaughlin said.

A Coast Guard fixed-wing aircraft and helicopter were dispatched. At about 3 a.m., the Coast Guard asked the Alaska state ferry service for help.

One of the largest vessels in the state ferry's fleet, the Columbia, was just west of Douglas Island en route to Juneau when it changed direction and headed for the Empress. The Columbia ferry, which can carry 499 passengers and 134 vehicles, stops in several ports including Bellingham, Ketchikan, Wrangell and Petersburg.

With 234 commuting passengers aboard, the Columbia arrived at Hanus Reef just before 5 a.m. and picked up 252 passengers and crew, Chambers said. That left 29 crew members aboard the Empress as it navigated on its own power back to Juneau's Auke Bay terminal.

Emergency authorities had buses on standby to transport the passengers to Centennial Hall Convention Center in downtown Juneau. The convention center was setting up a shelter for passengers, while Majestic America was making arrangements with hotels and airlines for getting the passengers back home.

The Coast Guard is trying to assess the damage, but because the ship has a double-hull design, it is in no danger of sinking and the bilge pumps are keeping up, said Petty Officer Eric Chandler at the Coast Guard base in Kodiak

"We're trying to figure out the best course of action," Chandler said. "We're still looking into the damage caused by the grounding."

The cruise can't continue because the boat is too damaged, Chandler said.

"We don't know if it was mechanical or an error in navigation," he said.

According to the company's Web site, the Empress of the North is a "newly built" sternwheeler with a 24-hour bar and grill, a crew of 84, 112 staterooms for 223 passengers and "a robust modern diesel propulsion system."

The American-built ship is billed by the company as the only overnight paddlewheel vessel in use on Alaskan cruises and also is used on cruises on the Columbia River between Washington state and Oregon.

Earlier this year, the company announced that the Empress was recognized as one of the top small cruise ships in the world, based on a readers poll by Conde Nast Traveler magazine.

The grounding of the cruise ship near Juneau is the fourth time the ship has hit something or run aground since it was built in 2002 at the Nichols Brothers shipyard on Whidbey Island.

The ship is one of six vessels in a fleet of river and coastal cruising ships.

In October of 2003, it hit a navigation lock at the Ice Harbor dam on the Snake River.

In November of 2003, it ran aground on the Oregon side of the Columbia River near The Dalles.

In March of 2006 it grounded on a sand bar in the Columbia near Washougal.

The Coast Guard is still investigating that grounding, but Lt. J.G. Nick Barrow, of the Portland station, said the ship apparently went aground on a reef as it was trying to pass a tug and barge in a narrow, twisted section of the river.

He also said there were communications issues between the tug and the cruise ship "which led each to believe they were in different parts of the river." He said the tug was near the middle of the river, so the Empress had to take evasive action and hit Ough Reef.

In its report, the Coast Guard said the Empress tried to slow down to let the tug and barge pass but was unable to slow enough to keep the vessel from hitting the reef.

In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the ship failed an inspection in February, and the agency is investigating what caused 26 passengers and seven crew members to get sick during a five-day Columbia River cruise in March.

Ambassadors International, the parent company of Majestic America, has been on a small-scale buying spree in the cruise business.

It acquired American West Steamboat Co., including Empress of the North and a sister ship, in January 2006. Three months later it bought Delta Queen Steamboat Co., which offers historical cruises on the Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee, Cumberland and Arkansas rivers. The steamboat company had three ships, and Ambassadors quickly bought two more.

Then, in February 2007, it agreed to buy Seattle-based Windstar Cruises and its three small luxury cruise ships.

According to Ambassadors' regulatory filings, it acquired Empress of the North and its sister ship by paying its former owner $1, retiring debt of approximately $4.3 million and assuming responsibility for approximately $41.5 million in loans guaranteed by the U.S. Maritime Administration.


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