Here is an interesting story from the seas of the Inside Passage near Juneau Alaska. It is particularly interesting to me as I used to live near the site of the sinking and had a view of the rocky point upon which the Princess Kathleen struck and eventually sank not too far from. It is hard to imagine that such a large passenger ship passed not too far from my living room window and sank on a foggy night in the not too distant past. After all, this did occur in the age of radar….unfortunately for the Captain, he chose not to use it on this particular night.
What was a lucky ending for most of the passengers, has now become a rather unfortunate story of dealing with the unknown, but likely still large amount of fuel oil remaining on board the slowly deteriorating vessel as it has been slowly leaking and causing an oil sheen in the area. Quantity of heavy fuel oil on board could range upwards of 155,000 gallons. To make things even more interesting, the site of the shipwreck lies right off the new NOAA Ted Stevens Marine Research Facility built upon the rocky point of land that the ship ran aground on.
Built in 1924 by John Brown & Company in Scotland, the ship was operated by the Canadian Pacific Railroad’s BC Coast Steamships. She was twin screw, powered by compound steam turbines that drove her at 22.5 knots. Princess Kathleen came in at 5,875 gross tons, with overall an overall length of 369ft. and a 60ft. beam. She briefly served as a troop ship during World War II, and then went back into service as a passenger liner plying the coast of British Columbia and Southeast Alaska. She was known for her luxury, and impeccable cleanliness. Accounts from engineers who served on board her reported that the engine room was kept in imaculate condition, with deck plates painted freshly painted each month and all brass and copper fittings and lines highly polished. The fleet of “Princess” ships were known as one of the finest coastal cruising fleets in the world.
This account from the Cruise Bruise blog tells the story:
The vessel was sailing towards Skagway, having entered Favorite Channel. The Channel is located north of Stephens Passage, between Shelter Island and the mainland. She had 307 passengers and 80 crew aboard when the steamship, captained by Graham O. Hughs hit the rocks at Point Lena.
At the time of the sinking, around 0300 hours as passengers and most crew slept, Chief Officer Charles W. Savage was on the bridge. Savage would later say though the ship had radar, it had not been turned on. A company spokesman told the press that whether or not to turn on the radar was a decision made by the officer in charge and apparently Savage did not deem the situation radar worthy as it traveled off shore at a speed said to be 9 knots.
The shipwreck was destined for a horror story, to be sure. Initially, Savage’s crew sent out an SOS on the wrong frequency. It would be two hours later before the United States Coast Guard would become aware a Canadian ship had been grounded on their shores.
When the USCG got wind of the plight of the Princess Kathleen, they immediately sent a cutter that had been towing a fishing vessel to the scene. The rescue ship arrived around 0630 hours to begin the evacuation of passengers who had already begun to make their way onto what they thought was an island.
The evacuation took a toll on the passengers, as many hiked through the bush to get to a road where vehicles were waiting to transport them into town. One passenger suffering a heart attack soon after arriving at the Baranof Hotel.
Later that day as the tide rose, Princess Kathleen slipped further and further off the rocks and into the sea. Her bow rests about 50 below the surface of the water, the stern 120 feet below, with about an 80 degree list. She had 155,000 gallons of bunker C fuel or also known as No. 6 fuel oil on board when she sunk.
Over 50 years later, a ship that had become a favorite dive location for divers with a fondness for sunken ships, now has people wondering, what were our parents thinking, when they left that ship to pollute the pristine Alaskan waters, without repercussions to the Canadian company that owned it.
Rec. No.: 50212
Lat Dec.: 58,3951888888889
Long Dec.: 134,779272222222
Lat 83: 58/23/42.68
Long 83: 134/46/45.38
Nativ Lat: 58/23/42.68
Nativ Lon: 134/46/45.38
Nat.Datum: North American Datum of 1983 (NAD 83)
Chart No.: 17316 [to NOAA chart]
Area: [O] Canadian Border to Point Manby
Cart. code: [cart.100] [cart. code: 100] submerged wreck, dangerous to navigation
Sound. code: [sndg.130] soundings in fathoms and tenths
Reference: [ref.20] Guide to Sunken Ships in American Waters. A., A.L. Lonsdale and H.R. Kaplan, Compass Publications, 1964. (out of print)
HISTORY NM40/52(10/4/52)–S.S. PRINCESS KATHLEEN LIES SUNK IN 20FMS OF WATER, WITH FOREMOST SHOWING AT LOW WATER, ABOUT 100 YARDS WESTERLY OF POINT LENA IN LAT 58-28-44N, LONG 134-46-42W(NAD27) (PA). NM41/52(10/11/52)–WK BUOY ESTABLISHED NM39/53(9/26/53)–WK BUOY DISCONTINUED, THERE IS REPORTED TO BE A MINIMUM DEPTH OF 40FT AT MLLW OVER THE WK. (UPDATED 12/95 RWD) H10682/96–PRINCESS KATHLEEN (SUBM 4.3FM AT MLLW), DIVE INVESTIGATION FOUND THE WRECK LAYING ON HER PORT SIDE, BOW FACING NORTH, WITH HER MASTS EXTENDING DOWNWARD AND OFFSHORE, POSITION GIVEN IN LAT 58-23-42.68N, LONG 134-46-45.38W. (UPDATED 1/97 RWD)
Historic reports indicate periodic oil discharges and sheens from the vessel in the years following the sinking. Spill reports from the last decade include similar reports of sheen and oil in the area. Recently, there has been an increase in the frequency of reports; possibly indicating a recent change in the vessel’s condition. In response to these reports the United States Coast Guard (USCG) opened the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund (OSLTF) to assess the condition of the vessel.
USCG contracted with Southeast Alaska Lighterage and Global Offshore Divers to evaluate damage to the vessel through the use of two remotely operated vehicles (ROV). The ROVs dove on the wreck on February 17, 18 and 19, 2010. The ROVs discovered bunker oil trapped inside the superstructure of the vessel, during certain tides the bunker oil is able to escape through broken portholes.
The Coast Guard and the State of Alaska have established a Unified Command to assess the quantity of oil on board and possibly commence removal operations. The Unified Command website can be found HERE.