Coast Guard says captain dozed off before Spirit of Baltimore cruise ship crashed into Fells Point wharf

"He ... fell asleep distracting him from maintaining the watch and safely maneuvering the vessel."

The captain of the Spirit of Baltimore had worked three days on his own boat and was feeling tired late on the August night when he guided the 119-foot ship on a midnight party cruise through the Inner Harbor, Coast Guard investigators said.

About 400 passengers were aboard drinking and dancing for the Aug. 28 cruise. At 2 a.m., investigators said, the mate left the bridge to help with a drunken passenger, and the captain dozed off.

The Spirit of Baltimore veered off course and splintered the floating pier at Henderson's Wharf Marina in Fells Point. The cruise ship hit two moored recreational boats, the Patty Bo and Chapter Eleven, and caused about $100,000 in damage to the wharf, investigators said.

Two passengers were hospitalized with chest and back pain.

The investigators' conclusions were revealed in a report obtained by The Baltimore Sun under a Freedom of Information Act request.

Dan Leaman, general manager of Entertainment Cruises, said Sunday the captain's conduct was "completely unacceptable."

"The captain was suspended and then fired within 24 hours," Leaman said in a statement. "This type of crew conduct has never occurred in the history of our company and we will continue working closely with the United States Coast Guard to ensure it never happens again."

The Coast Guard did not name the captain, and company officials declined to identify him. He had worked 41/2 years for the company and one year as captain of the Spirit of Baltimore.

The night of the crash was clear and breezy. One man told investigators he watched from the top deck as the cruise ship approached the pier.

"He was holding on to the railing when the force of the collision caused his two hands and inner forearms to push into his chest, his head snapped back, and he hit his knee of the lower crossbar of the railing," investigators wrote.

Guests had come from as far as New Jersey for the "All Linen Affair," a midnight-to-3 a.m. cruise with DJs, cocktails and dancing. Guests paid $55 and were asked to wear linen. The Spirit of Baltimore was returning to its berth when the ship struck the pier around 2:30 a.m.

Passengers felt the crash, then heard grinding as the ship sheared off a length of pier.

Investigators wrote that the captain "was fatigued and fell asleep, distracting him from maintaining the watch and safely maneuvering the vessel."

"The Master stated that he was fatigued because he had been working long hours on his own recreational vessel the previous three days," they wrote. "The Master also related that he does not do well on the moonlight cruises due to being tired at the late hour with which he must operate."

Before the All Linen Affair, they said, the captain had navigated the ship during a dinner cruise from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Some 412 passengers, 30 wait staff and five crew members were aboard for the midnight cruise. The mate joined the captain on the bridge.

"This is not company policy but due to the late hour of operations the Mate remained on the bridge as much as possible to help maintain a safe watch while the vessel was underway," investigators wrote.

Investigators said an alarm system in the bridge could have alerted crew and prevented the crash. Company officials have discussed fatigue with crews since the crash. Captains and crew feeling sleepy are required to have a mate ride in the bridge, remain standing and notify a supervisor.

The Spirit of Baltimore was traveling at an estimated 3.9 knots when it struck the pier. The captain told investigators he didn't know if the noise or impact woke him. Then he swung the ship out, stopped and assessed the damage. There was a gash in the side of the ship.

The Spirit of Baltimore continued about a mile to its berth.

Lawyers for three passengers have contacted the company to say their clients suffered injuries, investigators said.

tprudente@baltsun.com

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