The captain of a high-speed ferry that crashed into a jetty in Hyannis Harbor this month, sending 15 people to the hospital, mistook two boats and a tall metal pole as buoys in the moments before the accident, officials said Tuesday.
Because of choppy seas, the ferry’s radar system did not detect the jetty or the buoys that guide boats toward the dock, according to Wayne Lamson, general manager of the Steamship Authority, which operates the ferry line.
The radar did detect a metal pole at the end of the jetty, about 800 yards north of the first buoy’s usual position.
Radar also picked up two sailboats on the other side of the jetty, Lamson told the Steamship Authority’s board at a monthly meeting Tuesday.
The three objects were arranged in the “familiar pattern” of the buoys, he said, leading the captain to assume it was safe to continue toward them.
“The distances and positions of the pole and the sailboats matched identically to the pattern normally associated with” the buoys, Lamson said, according to a transcript of his comments to the board.
“Therefore, the captain did not detect anything unusual about the vessel’s approach into Hyannis channel until, after adjusting the vessel’s course to begin its entrance into the channel, he saw the breakwater in front of the vessel and administered the ‘panic stop’ as trained,” Lamson said.
In addition, the ship’s pilot could not find the buoys with a searchlight, Lamson said.
Paula Gates, a spokeswoman for the Steamship Authority, said the ferry is also equipped with a GPS system. She did not immediately respond to a question by e-mail about why that system did not prevent the crash.
The captain and the pilot of the ferry, called the Iyanough, are on paid leave.
Neither has been publicly named, and both tested negative for drugs and alcohol, Lamson said.
Lamson had previously said the two operators had more than 60 years of experience between them.
“They remain on administrative leave while we continue to investigate why, given their experience and abilities, they mistook the structure at the end of the Hyannis Harbor breakwater and two moored sailboats for” buoys, he said.
Despite the new details, Lamson said it is still premature to say what caused the crash.
“Suffice it to say that we are looking at all potentially contributing factors to this accident, including the actions and operational judgment of the vessel’s captain and pilot,” he said.
On June 16, the Iyanough was traveling from Nantucket to Hyannis when it struck the jetty at about 32 knots, or about 38 miles an hour. The boat was carrying 48 passengers, six crew members, and three food-service workers.
The day after the crash, Lamson said weather may have played a role.
The Coast Guard is investigating the accident. It declined to comment on Lamson’s statement.
The Steamship Authority has turned to charter boats on the Nantucket line while the Iyanough undergoes repairs. Lamson said he expects the Iyanough to return to service around July 21.