Alaska Cruise Ship Runs Aground

JUNEAU, Alaska, May 14, 2007 (ENS) - All passengers have been safely evacuated from a small cruise ship that ran aground 49 miles west of Juneau at 1:40 am local Alaska time.

The 299 foot vessel Empress of the North was cruising the Inside Passage when it grounded near Hanus Reef in Lynn Canal, Alaska in calm weather and calm seas. The cause of the incident was not immediately apparent.

The crew contacted the Coast Guard via VHF radio on Channel 16 reporting they were aground with 281 passengers and crew on board.

Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak launched an aircraft and a helicopter crew from Cordova, Alaska to the scene.

The U.S. Coast Guard and other Good Samaritan vessels coordinated efforts to evacuate the passengers to fishing vessels, Coast Guard vessels, and other cruise ships in the area.

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Passengers of the cruise ship Empress of the North are offloaded onto the Coast Guard Cutter Liberty in Lynn Canal this morning while a fishing vessel stands by to take on additional passengers. (Photo by Petty Officer Chris Caskey courtesy USCG)
By 7 this morning all 248 passengers had been safely transferred to the Alaska Marine Highway ferry vessel Columbia for transportation to Juneau. No injuries have been reported.

The vessel is owned an operated by Majestic America Line of Seattle, Washington. The company says the ship is proceeding under her own power to Juneau for a damage assessment and investigation of the incident. All of the vessel's 33 crewmembers remain on board.

The Coast Guard cutter Liberty was escorting the Empress of the North to Juneau, when the vessel took on water and began listing at the southern end of Icy Strait, about 15 miles southwest of the city, said Petty Officer Christopher McLaughlin at the Coast Guard base in Kodiak.

The Empress of the North was in the second day of a seven day cruise of Alaska's Inside Passage roundtrip from Juneau that departed Saturday.

Majestic America President David Giersdorf said, "The safety and comfort of our guests is our number one priority. We are taking all measures to ensure that all of their needs are met in the regrettable situation."

"We are working closely with the Coast Guard to undertake a full investigation and assess the condition of the vessel," Giersdorf said.

The U.S. Coast Guard is working with other state and federal agencies to mitigate any environmental damage.

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The Empress of the North (Photo courtesy Majestic America)
Majestic America says the Empress of the North is the only overnight sternwheeler cruising in Alaska and is also used on the Columbia River.

A four story high paddlewheel propels the vessel at a top speed of 14 knots. To steer the vessel, the Empress of the North does not use a conventional rudder but employs two Z-drive propeller pods that emerge from the bottom of the vessel and can rotate 360 degrees.

The Lynn Canal is an inlet, not an artificial canal, into the mainland of southeast Alaska. At over 2,000 feet in depth, the Lynn Canal is the deepest fjord in North America and one of the deepest and longest in the world.

Running about 90 miles (145 kilometers) from the inlets of the Chilkat River south to Chatham Strait and Stephens Passage, the Lynn Canal connects Skagway and Haines to Juneau and the rest of the Inside Passage, making it a major route for shipping, cruise ships, and ferries.