Avoiding tragedy 100 years after Princess Sophia sinking

Written by Lt. Nicholas Capuzzi

Canadian Steamer Princess Sophia. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Canadian Steamer Princess Sophia. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

On the morning of Oct. 26, 1918, the U.S. Lighthouse Tender Cedar approached Vanderbilt Reef in Lynn Canal in order to determine the status of the Canadian passenger steamer Princess Sophia, which had run aground three days prior. Instead of finding the distressed liner perched atop its pinnacle, the crew of this forerunner of a Coast Guard cutter saw only the top of its mast rising from beneath the frigid waters. Princess Sophia had gone down, taking with it at least 353 people.

In the 100 years since this tragedy, 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 and its sisters 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 has a port state control program, which 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 which authorizes the vessel to embark passengers within the U.S., whereas a substandard vessel is not permitted to leave 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 crew member’s 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. In 1904, a similar plight befell the steamship Clallam when that vessel began to flood in the Straits of Juan de Fuca. Clallam’s captain ordered lifeboats launched as soon as he realized the perilousness of the situation. Unfortunately, the crew lacked proficiency with launching the craft and dumped three loads of lifeboat occupants into the sea before abandoning that plan. There were no survivors from the lifeboats.

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.

Thanks to the Coast Guard’s robust port state control program, the safety of mariners and cruise ship passengers has increased dramatically. A focus on navigational safety minimizes the likelihood of a similar grounding. Coupled with an emphasis on responding to emergencies ensures that in the rare case navigational safety fails, the crew will be prepared to safely evacuate everyone aboard. As shipborne passenger numbers in Southeast Alaska continue to rise, Coast Guard foreign passenger vessel examiners are working to ensure their safety at sea.

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