Master of passenger ship probably fell asleep: NTSB

The master of passenger / vehicle RoRo vessel Cathlamet (IMO 7808138) probably fell asleep at the helm before the vessel crashed on July 28th 2022 near Fauntleroy ferry terminal, Washington State, according to a report from the National Transportation Safety Board.

There were 94 persons on board when the vessel struck a ferry terminal dolphin.1 One minor injury was reported. The damage to the vessel was estimated at $10m, and the dolphin damage estimate was $300,000.

The master said he had been surviving on only five to six hours of sleep a night as he dealt with the declining health of a family member. In both his account and that of the quartermaster in the deck with him, he seemed to have dozed off while operating the ship.

The report did not allege the master had violated policy by sleeping fewer than seven hours, but said that his so doing over several nights made him more vulnerable to fatigue and drifting off to sleep. The master, who had been with WSF since 1985 and reached his master status in 2007, retired the day after the crash.

The master did not follow normal protocols for docking, including slowing the vessel, radioing the terminal, blowing the whistle or informing passengers. Following the crash, the quartermaster reported him as saying: “What happened?”

The NTSB said that “these events are all consistent with incapacitation from a microsleep”.

NTSB investigators also cited as contributory factors an element of complacency on the part of the crew. At the time of the crash, when he should have been watching more closely over the shoulder of the master, the quartermaster was reading a company memo. That left the ferry vulnerable to a single point of failure, with no redundancy back-up in place.

“As the Cathlamet approached the Fauntleroy Ferry Terminal, the quartermaster did not actively monitor the master as the ferry approached the dock, as required by company policy, when he could have quickly taken the helm if the master became incapacitated,” the report found.

The ferry did not appear to have any mechanical issues. When a new crew took over after the crash, the propulsion and steering were all in working order. The investigators also concluded that no alcohol or drugs were involved, and the master had not been using a cellphone.

The ferry had been sailing the “triangle route” between Fauntleroy, Vashon Island and Southworth and left Vashon heading toward Fauntleroy around 08:00 local time. The master had been on board since 03:45, walking around the ship and checking things out, before relieving the chief mate and heading to the deck at around 07:30.

The quartermaster had been at the ferry’s helm until the master took the wheel around 08:10. Initially the approach to West Seattle appeared normal. The master phoned down to the engine room, instructing the engineers to prepare to turn. After that, however, no other commands came from the deck.

The master told investigators he took over the helm and then, “The next thing I know I hit, I hit the dolphin. That’s all I know.”

One passenger who had been standing on the deck saw the ferry approaching the dolphin, understood it was about to crash and moved away from the front of the vessel. When the allision occurred, the area where he had been standing collapsed. He held onto a railing to stop himself from falling onto the damaged deck below.

1981-built, 2,477 gt Cathlamet is owned by Washington State Transport and managed by Washington State Ferries of Seattle, Washington, USA.