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Columbia River grounding leaves Nichols’ Empress high and dry

A cruise ship launched by Nichols Brothers Boat Builders in June had its second scrape with maritime mishap on Thanksgiving when it ran aground on the rocky shore of the Columbia River.

The 360-foot long, 3,500-ton steel paddlewheeler Empress of the North was in the fifth day of an eight-day cruise last Thursday when it jolted a full load of passengers with the unintended collision. According to Joel Perry, a spokesman for the company that owns the Empress, American West Steamboat Company, a malfunction in the ship’s steering system is thought to be the cause of the accident.

The Empress hit the rocks near The Dalles at about 10 p.m. on Thanksgiving. The collision dented the bow of the ship and caused three injuries among passengers and crew. Most serious was a broken arm, suffered by a member of a band performing aboard the Empress when she fell off a stage.

The damage to the ship was not serious enough to prevent it from getting back onto the river under its own power. Passengers were unloaded just downriver of the grounding site, where they boarded buses to continue their river tour on land. The Empress then sailed for Portland, where it was put into dry dock at the Cascade General shipyard for repairs. Perry said repair work will take 10 to 12 days, meaning the Empress will miss two scheduled river tours. The boat was not brought back to Nichols’ Freeland boat yard because it does not have a dry dock facility.

Having the trip come to a sudden end was not a big negative for all the passengers aboard the Empress. Langley resident Freda Sprietsma, who was on the cruise with her husband, said the trip to that point had been excellent. Just before the grounding — which she compared to jolt of an earthquake — she heard the ship’s alarm sound.

“Which is an awful thing to hear,” she said.

Despite the mishap, Sprietsma said she can’t wait to get back on the Empress for another river tour.

“It’s kinda fun to think she was born right here,” she said of the Nichols-manufactured vessel.

American West’s Perry said his cruise line will make restitution to passengers who had their cruises end early because of the grounding. He did not say whether that restitution would come in the form of a refund or an offer for another cruise aboard the Empress. Passengers booked onto the two river tours that were cancelled because of the necessary repair period for the Empress will be allowed to rebook at their convenience.

Passengers on the Nov. 23-30 “Path of the Explorers” cruise paid between $2,389 and $4,399 for their trips.

The bump on the Columbia is the second suffered by the Empress. During its launch on June 16, the ship slipped on its launch rails and slid into Holmes Harbor, burying part of its stern in tideland muds. It took three tugboats to pull it out. Of the latest bump, American West’s Perry said the Empress showed the quality of the work put into her.

“Nichols builds great boats,” he said.

The Empress is one of two Nichols boats operated by American West. The company also operates the Empress’ smaller sister ship, the Queen of the West. Both boats are styled to look like Mississippi River boats of the 19th century. The Empress cruises both on the Columbia River and on Inland Passage trips to Alaska.

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