Factors Listed in Islander Mishap

Gazette Senior Writer

Poor preparation, faulty communication and the uncharacteristic failure of an experienced captain to keep proper command of his vessel - these are key factors that led to an alarming accident on the ferry Islander five months ago, a Steamship Authority report has found.

A boat line crew member nearly drowned in the August 4 incident, and scores of passengers and onlookers were shaken, not least among them a New Jersey school teacher who jumped overboard to save the unconscious crew member.

Capt. David Dandridge was at the helm at the time of the incident.

"There was no direction by the captain to the crew when the emergency transpired," wrote Capt. Greg Gifford, who is the port captain for the boat line.

Mr. Gifford investigated the accident and wrote a report on Oct. 14. The SSA released the six-page report this week. Attached to the report is a response from Captain Dandridge, a respected Vineyard resident and unlimited ocean master captain with a previously unblemished track record for safety and performance.

"Captain Dandridge's behavior during this particular incident was not consistent with his past command of vessels and his performance during 13 years with the authority," Captain Gifford wrote in the report.

Mr. Gifford found without question that Captain Dandridge was responsible for the accident, and the first three pages of his report paint a detailed picture of a chaotic scene on board the ferry Islander that summer morning, when a routine training drill went badly wrong.

The man overboard drill had been previously planned and a chief warrant officer for the Coast Guard was on board the Islander when she began her return trip from the Vineyard to Woods Hole.

The drill had been planned for the trip between Woods Hole and the Vineyard, along with a fire fighting drill. But because of problems with a faulty fire pump, the man overboard drill was put off until the next trip on the Islander - a 9 a.m. trip out of Vineyard Haven.

The man overboard drill involves the use of a rescue boat and a mannequin that is thrown over the side of the ferry to simulate a person falling into the water.

The drill began smoothly enough - the mannequin named Oscar was thrown into the water by the Coast Guard officer and a 13-foot rescue boat with an outboard motor was lowered alongside the Islander. Two able-bodied seamen - Barry Brooks and Mark Laliberte - climbed into the rescue boat, which was connected to the large ferry by sea painters, ropes usually used at the bow of a boat.

There were 232 passengers on board the ferry at the time.

According to the report Captain Dandridge left the forward wheelhouse of the Islander, moved to the aft wheelhouse and began to steam the ferry back toward the mannequin. The rescue boat was still connected to the ferry, and it began to drag and take on water.

"The crew immediately realized the danger of the situation," Captain Gifford wrote in the report. But there were problems. Crew members tried to contact Captain Dandridge by radio to alert him to the situation, but Captain Dandridge had left his radio in the forward wheelhouse. The pilot/mate, Ellen Ferguson, was also in the aft wheelhouse at the time and the report chronicles a good deal of confusion over traffic signals and communication.

There was confusion from the outset about the method for communication during the drill - radios were on hand but, according to the report, Captain Dandridge had told the crew that he wanted to use whistle signals because during a previous drill a radio had been lost overboard.

According to the report, Glenn Barton, the Coast Guard warrant officer, went to the wheelhouse and told Captain Dandridge about the mishap that was unfolding on the water. Captain Dandridge radioed the Vineyard Haven harbor master for emergency help and left the wheelhouse, without his radio, leaving the pilot/mate alone at the helm.

The events that took place down on the water have been well chronicled by now. The rescue boat filled with water and flipped over. Mr. Brooks went under with the boat, his leg entangled in a line. A passenger on board the ferry jumped overboard and swam underneath the rescue boat, freeing Mr. Brooks from the tangled line. Mr. Brooks was unconscious and was transported to shore by a Vineyard Haven Yacht Club committee boat which was nearby at the time of the mishap.

The tugboat Sirrus came alongside the Islander and held her steady until the ordeal was over.

Mr. Brooks was hospitalized and later recovered. Neither Mr. Brooks nor Mr. Laliberte have returned to work since the incident. Both have begun legal action against the boat line.

Captain Gifford outlined the following root causes for the mishap:

* Poor planning, including no pre-drill conference with crew members who were involved in the drill.

* Confusion about the use of whistle signals.

* No clear direction from the captain, who among other things left the forward wheelhouse without telling the pilot/mate his intentions, and did not give clear commands to the crew about the methods for communication.

* Poor command of the vessel by the captain. "The vessel was in a ‘not under command' status, i.e., no one was in control of the vessel during the switchover to the aft wheelhouse," Captain Gifford wrote.

Captain Dandridge disputes this statement in his response.

But Captain Gifford's conclusions are unambiguous.

"First, Captain Dandridge failed in this instance to exhibit the required command authority and control of his vessel . . . . Another possible contributing factor requiring investigation is whether the Steamship Authority should adopt more standard procedures for such drills," Captain Gifford wrote.

The port captain concluded:

"Given the well-accepted professional standards that the captain is in full command of his vessel, and that vessels can be very different from one another (as in this case the two wheelhouses on the Islander being a contributing factor), the Steamship Authority management has been reluctant to take command away from the captains. Authority captains, combined, perform over 1,000 safety drills annually and communication has not been an issue. Nevertheless, given the general level of confusion in this incident, management will review its position."

The Coast Guard also conducted a separate investigation into the mishap; complete results of the investigation have not been released yet, but an early report found that poor communication was a key factor in the accident.

After Captain Gifford's report was completed, Captain Dandridge was sent for training at the Coast Guard Marine Safety International and the Bridge Team Management programs. Captain Dandridge received high marks in the training exercise, especially in the portion that involved a man overboard drill.

No decision has been made yet about any disciplinary action again Captain Dandridge. SSA chief executive officer Fred C. Raskin was attending a ferry conference in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., this week, and could not be reached for comment. Philip Parent, director of human resources for the boat line, said yesterday that a management meeting is set for early next week to discuss the Gifford report and any possible disciplinary action.