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Cruise Ship Heads to Portland

by Tom Vogt, Staff Writer
The Columbian, March 27, 2006

(JANET L. MATHEWS) The crowd at Steamboat Landing near Washougal watches the sternwheeler Empress of the North head for Portland on Sunday afternoon. Two tractor tugs helped the 360-foot river cruiser get back into the Columbia RiverŐs shipping channel. The Empress ran aground Friday morning about 350 yards from the Washington shore. Higher water, a lighter load and more powerful tugs combined Sunday afternoon to get the Empress of the North off a shallow spot in the Columbia River.

The 360-foot sternwheeler had been stuck in shallow water near Washougal since Friday morning.

The cruise ship was freed about 3:40 p.m., and headed under her own power toward Portland, where she is slated to undergo inspection and any necessary repairs.

After an unsuccessful attempt to free the sternwheeler Saturday, the rescue effort on Sunday benefited from higher water and two powerful tractor tugs.

U.S. Coast Guard Ensign Nick Barrow said the operation was timed to take advantage of the rising afternoon tide, which can raise the river level at that point by about a foot.

The ship also was lightened Saturday with the removal of 20,000 gallons of diesel fuel, a task that was completed late Saturday night.

The remaining fuel was transferred to port side tanks, away from the starboard side of the hull where the vessel was grounded.

"We needed to keep some fuel on board" to help the ship reach Swan Island, Barrow said.

And, two tractor tugs provided by Foss Maritime provided the pull required to ease the Empress into deeper water.

Barrow said the tugs were on the channel side of the vessel and pulled it more sideways, rather than forward, into the channel.

It was a complex operation, Barrow said, but once all the elements were in place, "it was a very swift operation."

A skeleton crew of about 20 remained aboard to sail the Empress of the North toward Portland, accompanied by the tugs and three Coast Guard craft that established a 100-yard safety zone around the cruise ship. The sternwheeler will undergo a full inspection including a close-up look by divers, Barrow said and any required repairs at the Cascade General Shipyard at the Port of Portland.

"Once repairs are complete, it will have to undergo a Coast Guard inspection to ensure its integrity," Barrow said.

"We are pleased to have the Empress of the North under way again and look forward to making any necessary repairs and returning to full service as soon as possible," David Giersdorf, president of American West Steamboat Co., said in a release Sunday night.

The Empress of the North left Astoria, Ore., on Sunday, March 19, for a seven-night Columbia River cruise.

It was heading west, near Washougal, on Friday when the ship veered out of the shipping channel and came to rest on a sandbar, stranding more than 250 passengers and crew members about 350 yards from the Washington shore.

Fully loaded, the ship draws about 12 feet of water, and Friday's mishap left its stern jammed into a sandbar in 7 feet of water. Passengers were transferred to a sister ship, the 230-foot Queen of the West, and transported to the Port of Camas-Washougal. No injuries were reported.

There were no indications of any pollution problems during the two days, Barrow added. But just in case, pollution response equipment was staged in Washougal, including vessels and booming material to contain anything that might leak from the ship.

The Portland sector of the Coast Guard is investigating the grounding.

Giersdorf said guests who are scheduled for the next cruise aboard the Empress of the North have been told to expect a delay of the departure and possible cancellation.

Alternative hotel and sightseeing activities have been arranged for guests while the vessel inspection and repair plan are being completed.

For more information, contact American West Steamboat Co. at 800-434-1232.

Tom Vogt
Cruise Ship Heads to Portland
The Columbian, March 27, 2006

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