Canada’s Transportation Safety Board blames poor watchkeeping practices which lead to a course change not being made for the loss of the 8,889 gross tonnes ferry Queen Of The North on March 22, 2006 at Gil Island, Wright Sound, British Columbia, but has declined to provide details of a personal 14 minute conversation between the ship’s fourth officer and the quartermaster on the bridge immediately before the accident.
Speculation about what was said or happened has been of particular interest because the female quartermaster and the male fourth officer had been in a relationship which ended two weeks before the incident. This was the first watch they had been on together since the break-up.
Despite aggressive questioning from some Canadian journalists, TSB chairman Wendy Tadros declined to give details of the conversation except to say “we have no evidence that it was a fight.”
Behind the discretion is concern about the willingness of crews to provide information relevant to future investigations. While maritime accident investigations do not depend wholly on crew statements and recollections, often the weakest of evidence, they are still an important element and the co-operation of crew in giving information could be compromised by revealing personal details that do not directly relate to making travel safer.
Said Tadros “We learned what was happening with the vessel… we learned what we needed to learn.”
TSB has recommended the introduction of Voyage Data Recorders, VDRs, the maritime equivalent of aviation’s “little black box”, onto Canadian vessels. These record instrument data as well as what is spoken on the bridge.
About half the investigation’s $900,000 cost went on an ROV dive to recover data from the ship at a depth of some 1,500 metres. The vessel’s Transas ECS was recovered, together with the AIS, GPS and DSC radio. The ECS data was able to be extracted.
The Queen of the North grounded and sank after failure to make a course change which the fourth officer believed he had ordered. Several distractions may have contributed to the failure. As second course change was due 27 minutes later but he did not monitor whether the first change had been made as he was involved in a personal conversation with the quartermaster for the next 14 minutes.
When he did realise that the vessel was off course, his actions were too little, too late, to prevent striking the island. ECS alarms that might have given a warning were switched off.
There a further delay in responding to the situation because the quartermaster was not familiar with the bridge equipment and did not know how to switch off the autopilot and revert to manual steering.
There should, in fact, have been at least two qualified officers on the bridge but the second officer was on a scheduled meal break at the time of the incident.
“Accidents speak to a failure of the system,” said Tadros, “Essentially, the system failed that night. Sound watchkeeping practices were not followed and the bridge watch lacked a third certified person.”
In its conclusions , the TSB report notes: “The working environment on the bridge of the Queen of the North was less than formal, and the accepted principles of navigation safety were not consistently or rigorously applied. Unsafe navigation practices persisted which, in this occurrence, contributed to the loss of situational awareness by the bridge team.”
At 08:00 p.m. on March 21, 2006, the passenger and vehicle ferry Queen of the North departed Prince Rupert, British Columbia, for Port Hardy, British Columbia. On board were 59 passengers and 42 crew members. After entering Wright Sound from Grenville Channel, the vessel struck the northeast side of Gil Island at 12:21 a.m. on March 22.
The vessel sustained extensive damage to its hull, lost its propulsion, and drifted for 1 hour and 17 minutes before it sank in 430 m of water. Passengers and crew abandoned the vessel before it sank. Two passengers were unaccounted for after the abandonment and have since been declared dead.
The full report can be downloaded here.