New Twist in Ferry Accident Probe as Human Error Becomes Probable Cause

Previously, human error was not believed to be a factor in last November's ferry boat accident in which two passengers suffered minor injuries when Golden Gate Ferry's MS San Francisco rammed a dock at the San Francisco Ferry Building.

The damage caused to the dock at the San Francisco Ferry Building due to a ferryboat collision in November has yet to be repaired. Photo by Joel Williams

BY DAN ROSENHEIM

 

Previously, human error was not believed to be a factor in last November’s ferry boat accident in which two passengers suffered minor injuries when Golden Gate Ferry’s MS San Francisco rammed a dock at the San Francisco Ferry Building.

 

Now, though, while a Coast Guard investigation has yet to be completed, well-placed maritime sources tell us investigators believe human error contributed to the crash, which caused several hundred thousand dollars in damage to the boat and a dock.

 

“It is looking more like human error than a mechanical failure,” said one source, an employee at a Bay Area ferryboat operation. “That’s the most likely scenario.”

 

The San Francisco had recently undergone significant modernization to upgrade controls for steering and speed. Like many vessels, the San Francisco has control consoles for speed and steering both inside the pilot house and outside, on the bridge. That allows the captain to step out of and alongside the pilot house for a clear view of the dock while bringing the ferry into port.

 

But for a smooth handoff to the bridge console to take place, the pilot house controls need to be configured properly. Investigators, we’re told, believe the captain failed properly to set controls inside the vessel’s pilot house.

 

“In that case, he would briefly lose control, and the propulsion system would cause the boat to lurch,” said our source.

 

Neither Golden Gate nor the Coast Guard would confirm these findings. At the Coast Guard, officials had no comment other than to say the investigation has not been completed. A Coast Guard public information officer, Lt. Aileen Fagan, said she couldn’t predict when the probe would end, noting that it had been slowed by the federal government shutdown.

 

“They are still working through a multitude of factors,” she said. “They just can’t answer yet [what the cause was]. It’s going to be a little while.”

 

And Golden Gate spokesperson Priya Clemens said, “I can neither confirm nor deny that report.”

 

Others, however, said Golden Gate officials have been aware of the findings since early February and have been discussing how to handle them, both with respect to making them public, drawing any operational lessons and for any potential disciplinary consequences. The ferryboat’s captain is represented by a union, the International Organization of Masters Mates and Pilots. Calls to the union were not immediately returned.

 

An early estimate placed the cost of repairing damage to the vessel and the dock at $325,000. The Coast Guard’s investigations department has been looking into this accident since early last December. In larger accidents, the National Transportation Safety Board joins the probe, but that apparently is not the case here.

 

The San Francisco belongs to an older class of three Spaulding ferries operated by Golden Gate, which also has a fleet of more modern catamarans. The San Francisco’s modernization included the installation of a computer joystick—a small throttle on a pivoting gimbal.

       

But unlike many modern vessels that use jet propulsion to move and turn, the San Francisco’s jet system was replaced with a traditional rudder and propeller system. The latter has better fuel economy, but it responds to commands more slowly.