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The Spirit of Glacier Bay's grounding July 7, 2008, is the latest in a series of problems on ships owned by Cruise West in Alaska.

BRIAN WALLACE / Juneau Empire

The Spirit of Glacier Bay's grounding July 7, 2008, is the latest in a series of problems on ships owned by Cruise West in Alaska.

Cruise West already under Coast Guard watch

FLEET OPERATOR: Ships are being inspected and crew members questioned.

The number of mishaps aboard Cruise West vessels so far this season has landed the company on a special program to review the ships' safety and maintenance procedures, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.

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Seattle-based Cruise West ships have so far suffered three mechanical failures and two groundings, including the most recent that took place Monday morning when the Spirit of Glacier Bay ran aground in Tarr Inlet near its namesake bay.

The Coast Guard began talking to the company about the trend after its ships suffered the second mechanical failure of the season, said Capt. Scott Robert, Coast Guard sector Juneau commander.

Mechanical problems are common on ships, and the Coast Guard in Alaska responds to hundreds of such calls each season, he said. But the number specifically on Cruise West ships this season prompted the extra attention, he said.

"After the third mechanical failure and the (first) grounding is when we started to take a very proactive approach on looking at the safety systems on board those vessels," Robert said. "These safety stand-downs are above and beyond what we, the Coast Guard, typically do with this industry."

The Coast Guard frequently holds surprise spot inspections and evaluates vessels at the beginning of the season, Robert said. The "safety stand-downs" are an added layer of oversight to promote safety and prevent serious accidents, he said.

As part of the plan, all of Cruise West's ships are being inspected by Coast Guard personnel, who are examining safety plans, equipment and maintenance policies, Robert said. The boardings also entail talking to crew members to improve their awareness of safety conditions, he said.

Cruise West officials are working in partnership, with its vice president "actively participating" in the stand-downs, Robert said. The boardings are scheduled in advance and take about two or three hours on average, he said. They are being held wherever the ships are -- in Alaska and elsewhere.

"This is a Coast Guard-wide issue," Robert said. "This is a combined, overarching look (at) Cruise West across the entire Coast Guard."

The agency plans to continue with the stand-downs until it is convinced Cruise West vessels are being operated and maintained safely, Robert said.

Jerrol Golden, spokeswoman for Cruise West, which operates nine small cruise ships, would not comment on the Coast Guard program, though she said safety is a top priority for the company. She stressed none of the incidents this season involved any injuries.

"Each incident is different, and there's definitely lessons learned immediately," she said. "There's no doubt the management system is under review by us, for sure."

She would not elaborate.

Find James Halpin online at or call him at 257-4589.

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Recent Cruise West incidents in Alaska waters

JULY 7, 2008: The Spirit of Glacier Bay, with 51 passengers and crewmen aboard, ran aground in Tarr Inlet and remained stuck until the tide moved back in to refloat the vessel. There were no injuries, and the vessel's hull was not breached. Weather was clear with calm seas.

JUNE 4, 2008: The Spirit of Alaska scraped the ocean floor while carrying 63 people in Tracy Arm, a glaciated fjord about 45 miles south of Juneau. No injuries were reported, but a diver inspecting the vessel's exterior noted possible damage to its rudder and the vessel was towed to Auke Bay in Juneau, its home port.

MAY 10, 2008: The Spirit of Columbia lost power to both its generators and one of two propeller engines while about 80 miles south of Juneau. The ship's crew managed to repair the generators but one engine was still down. The vessel, traveling under its own power, hauled its 89 passengers back to Auke Bay under the supervision of a Coast Guard cutter.

AUG. 19, 2007: The Spirit of Columbia was carrying 51 passengers and 21 crew members when it ran aground at low tide near Evans Island during a bear-watching maneuver. The vessel struck mud and sand but its hull was not breached. There were no injuries. It refloated at high tide and made the return voyage to Whittier.

JUNE 25, 2007: The Spirit of Yorktown collided with the 58-foot fishing vessel Adirondack in Chatham Strait and crippled the seiner. No injuries were reported, and the Yorktown suffered no damage. The Adirondack was towed to Sitka by another fishing vessel.

Source: Anchorage Daily News archives