Commercial Vessel Compliance

11/8/2018: Avoiding tragedy 100 years after Princess Sophia sinking

Editor’s note: The content of this post originally appeared on the Coast Guard’s Compass blog and has been edited for length. Although the author focuses on foreign passenger vessels traversing Alaskan waters, the lessons learned from the Princess Sophia are applicable to passenger vessels operating anywhere in the world. We hope you enjoy the read!

Written by Lt. Nicholas Capuzzi, Coast Guard Sector Juneau

In the 100 years since the Canadian passenger steamer Princess Sophia sank with 353 people onboard in frigid Alaskan waters, the number of foreign-flagged passenger vessels traversing the inside waters of Southeast Alaska has risen dramatically. Over 1.1 million cruise ship passengers visited ports throughout Southeast Alaska in 2018, consisting of 518 voyages on 34 cruise ships. These cruise ships best Princess Sophia in both voyage frequency and passengers with an average capacity of 3,500. In this regard, a modern-day disaster like the Princess Sophia would have consequences much more severe.

Fortunately, the past 100 years allowed for the development of robust regulations to ensure the safety of all passengers booking passage on one of these non-U.S. vessels. The United States port state control program allows Coast Guard examiners to board foreign-flagged vessels and verify that the ship condition meets the international standards. Under the terms of this program, cruise ships receive two exams annually. A vessel found in substantial compliance receives a Certificate of Compliance that authorizes the vessel to embark passengers within the U.S., whereas a substandard vessel is detained in port until all major deficiencies are rectified.

Many of the safety items that Coast Guard foreign passenger vessel examiners check for are directly related to the lessons learned from the Princess Sophia disaster. For example, the primary cause of the grounding was a loss of awareness of the navigational picture that allowed the vessel to strike a charted and well-known hazard. As part of a cruise ship examination, the exam team checks the functionality of navigational equipment such as electronic charting systems, radars, and depth sounders, as well as the ship crew’s proficiency with using these systems. The team also reviews crewmembers’ licenses and training certificates to ensure that they meet the minimum qualifications to fill these key shipboard positions.

The Princess Sophia grounding escalated from an unfortunate incident to unspeakable tragedy when the ship’s crew was unable to evacuate the passengers from the stricken liner while sitting atop the reef. Had the lifeboats been loaded and launched right away, everyone might have been able to abandon the ship safely. However, as time went on, the weather deteriorated to a point where it was no longer safe to launch. Many competing theories exist as to why the crew did not immediately lower the lifeboats. One of those theories is that the crew was not confident in their ability to prepare and launch the survival craft.

During a modern cruise ship exam, Coast Guard team members place emphasis on crew proficiency with their emergency duties, to include preparing and launching survival craft. Each exam requires the lowering, maneuvering, and recovering of 50 percent of the ship’s complement of lifeboats. Additionally, the annual exam requires the launching of an inflatable life raft. In combination with fire and passenger evacuation drills, this abandon ship drill ensures that the crew can respond effectively to any incident aboard the ship.

The Coast Guard’s port state control program focuses on the safety of mariners and cruise ship passengers as well as navigational safety. This two-fold approach ensures the crew will be prepared to evacuate everyone aboard in the rare case navigational safety fails.

Visit the Coast Guard Cruise Ship National Center of Expertise’s website for more information about foreign passenger vessel examinations.

Visit the Office of Commercial Vessel Compliance’s website for more information about the port state control program.

This blog is not a replacement or substitute for the formal posting of regulations and updates or existing processes for receiving formal feedback of the same. Links provided on this blog will direct the reader to official source documents, such as the Federal Register, Homeport and the Code of Federal Regulations. These documents remain the official source for regulatory information published by the Coast Guard.

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