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Freighter faults ferry for near-miss in sound

While the ferry had right of way, a pilot group cites failure to yield by the Wenatchee.

A Bainbridge-bound state ferry almost struck a Danish cargo ship Tuesday evening, despite three assurances from the ferry’s operator that her vessel would slow down to keep them out of each other’s paths, the Puget Sound Pilots association says.

“I don’t know what the communication breakdown was, but if action hadn’t been taken it could have been a disaster,” said Richard McCurdy, president of the association representing the sound’s commercial cargo ship pilots.

The 465-foot ferry Wenatchee and the 1,044-foot freighter Knud Maersk were forced to veer off-course at about 5:50 p.m. Tuesday, passing within a quarter mile of each other, according to U.S. Coast Guard officials.

The ferry’s operator, First Mate Pamela Jamison, was forced to put the ferry’s engines in reverse to avoid a collision, according to Washington State Ferries officials. The Wenatchee’s 1,074 passengers were shaken, but no one was hurt.

The Coast Guard and WSF are investigating the incident, and a ferry spokeswoman declined to assign blame.

“We’re still looking into this, and I can’t point the finger on who’s right or wrong,” said WSF spokeswoman Susan Harris-Huether.

Coast Guard spokesman Rick Rodriguez said such close calls don’t occur often in Puget Sound.

“This very rarely happens,” he said. “With the amount of traffic we have, it’s actually very safe. It’s rare that this kind of radical maneuvering is ever done. We don’t want it to happen again.”

While the ferry had the legal right-of-way, the two vessels’ operators agreed by radio to a passing plan that would allow the freighter to continue on its northbound course while the ferry slowed, according to McCurdy.

When the vessels were 2 miles apart, the freighter pilot noted the ferry had not altered its course or speed.

He called the ferry again and asked if he should slow to let the ferry pass. The ferry operator repeated the assurance that the freighter would be allowed to pass.

One minute later, with the ships about 1 mile apart, the ferry still had not changed course, according to McCurdy.

“The pilot called yet again and said he was uncomfortable with the situation,” he said. “The ferry asked what the pilot wanted done, and the pilot asked in very direct language that the ferry get out of the way and that the pilot was taking the container ship hard left.”

WSF and the Coast Guard disagree over how critical an issue the passing proximity was. According to Rodriguez, the ferry and freighter passed at under three-tenths of a mile, “which seems like quite a distance, but really isn’t.”

Harris-Huether agrees that the vessels were within a quarter mile of each other, but contends the passing distance “wasn’t really near.”

McCurdy said the ferry, carrying a hefty load of evening commuters and 217 vehicles, isn’t easy to stop.

“It doesn’t look like it from the top, but the ferries are built like canoes on the bottom,” he said. “And when they’re jam-packed they can really slide along.”

He said his pilots generally aim for 1 or 2 miles of separation from state ferries.

“We certainly don’t want to be within a half mile, or even a quarter mile as we saw in this case,” he said. “You really want to avoid something like that.”

Despite the near-miss, McCurdy praised WSF’s operators and the close relationship his association has with them.

“We have a very good track record of cooperation with the ferry officers,” he said, adding that the freighter’s pilot had been a ferry captain for more than 13 years. “They go out of their way to make sure that we cross with a minimum of difficulty.

“They recognize that the ferry boats are much more maneuverable than our ships, and very graciously agree to crossing arrangements that get both of us where we need to be, while keeping the ships as far apart as possible.”

McCurdy said his association’s pilots often cross five state ferry pathways en route to the open ocean or ports in the south sound.

His 50-member association supplies local pilots who operate large, out-of-state vessels as they ply the sound before reaching open waters.

One of McCurdy’s pilots was helming the Danish freighter en route from Tacoma to Port Angeles when it crossed the Wenatchee’s path, he said.

The last serious collision involving a state ferry occurred in 1991, when the Sealth struck the Kitsap in Rich Passage under thick fog, according to Harris-Huether.

No one has been killed in a collision involving the state’s ferries, she added.

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