Box ship loses power in rough seas, drifts near BC coastal islands

A Russian containership lost propulsion in rough conditions and drifted dangerously close to the northern British Columbia shoreline. The ship’s captain suffered a head injury during the incident.

The 441-foot Simushir ran into trouble Oct. 16 off Haida Gwaii, formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands, when a cooling pump failed and the ship lost power. The vessel was approaching dangerously close to land when it was taken under tow and pulled to safety.

With 11 personnel aboard, the 6,540-gross-ton Simushir was en route from Port Angeles, Wash., to Provideniya, Russia, when it lost power. Canadian Coast Guard vessels Sir Wilfred Laurier and Gordon Reid were dispatched to the scene.

According to Dan Bate, communications officer with the Canadian Coast Guard, while the vessel was drifting without power, the captain — who had suffered head trauma — was airlifted off the vessel by a Canadian Forces Cormorant helicopter.
“The crew couldn’t take care of him based on limited resources they had on board. It was rough conditions out there,” Bate said.

The U.S. Coast Guard also responded, quickly dispatching the Coast Guard cutter Spar, a 225-foot seagoing buoy tender home-ported in Kodiak, to Simushir’s location with a state of Alaska emergency towing system (ETS) on board.

In a news release, the U.S. Coast Guard stated that the ETS was developed as a tool to assist disabled vessels. It can be deployed either by helicopter or from a tug or other vessel of opportunity. The system was developed following the grounding of the 738-foot cargo vessel Selendang Ayu in December 2004 near Unalaska. Both Spar and Sir Wilfred Laurier had trained for a similar incident during Arctic Shield 2013 near Teller, Alaska.

Reported to be carrying 500 tons of bunker fuel and 60 tons of diesel, the drifting ship raised alarms ashore. The council of the Haida Nation expressed concern about the safety of shipping along that stretch of coastline, where controversy already was ripe at the prospect of increased oil tanker traffic.

“The Haida Nation’s worst fear is coming true,” said Peter Lantin, president of the Haida Nation. “Our priority is to minimize the impact on our homeland and get our people on-site to start dealing with the grounding. We’ll deal with the politics of the situation later.”

The Haida Nation is on record as being opposed to oil tanker traffic off Haida Gwaii. The proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline to Kitimat on B.C.’s coast and the potential for large volumes of tanker traffic has drawn criticism on the coast and across Canada.

According to Kris Schumacher, marketing and communications officer with the Prince Rupert port authority, Simushir lost power late in the evening of Oct. 16 as a result of a failed oil-cooling pump.

Simushir, which was nine miles offshore when Gordon Reid secured the first towline at 1830 hours on Oct.17, was reported to be 29 miles from land as of 0930 the next day. The oceangoing U.S.-based tug Barbara Foss arrived at the scene at 1730 and took Simushir under tow and proceeded toward Prince Rupert.

Schumacher said Barbara Foss towed Simushir into the jurisdiction of Port of Prince Rupert in the early morning of Oct. 20, where it was met by a British Columbia Coast Pilot and support tugs from SMIT Marine, and navigated to Fairview Container Terminal for repair.  

The Haida Nation remained critical of the incident, pointing out that had it occurred in Hecate Strait on the east side of Haida Gwaii, things could have turned out much worse.

“Hecate Strait is the fourth most dangerous body of water in the world. Even Environment Canada acknowledges that,” said Lantin. “If this accident had happened in Hecate Strait, I believe we would have had a ship grounded and breaking apart onshore. Throughout the rescue operation, conditions in the strait were much, much worse than on the west coast. It is a folly to believe that a ‘super tug’ can manage a fully laden oil tanker in the strait under those conditions.” 

Following successful replacement of the oil pump, Simushir sailed from the Port of Prince Rupert under its own power Oct. 27.

By Professional Mariner Staff