Crew airlifted after tugboat grounds on southeast Alaska reef

Ocean Eagle

The Coast Guard rescued five people from an oceangoing tugboat after it grounded on a charted reef west of Wrangell, Alaska, and began taking on water.

The 3,000-hp Ocean Eagle was towing a cargo barge when it struck Mariposa Reef in Sumner Strait shortly before 1915 on March 1. The impact damaged the tug’s keel and rudders and left gashes in its hull. Minor sheening also was spotted near the reef.

Crew escaped to the 335-foot cargo barge ZB 335 after seawater began flooding into Ocean Eagle’s engine room. A Coast Guard MH-60 helicopter crew from Air Station Sitka hoisted them to safety at 0038 on March 2.

“They evacuated from the tug to the barge because the tug was beginning to take on water and they thought it was beginning to sink,” Coast Guard spokesman William Colclough said. “They were on the barge and in some relatively heavy weather, so at that point the Coast Guard made the decision” to rescue them.

The accident is still under investigation and investigators have not yet determined a cause. The incident marks Ocean Eagle’s second grounding in a year within the Inside Passage running from British Columbia to Alaska.

Brusco Tug & Barge of Longview, Wash., owns the 47-year-old Ocean Eagle. The company did not respond to a request for comment.

Ocean Eagle departed from Everett, Wash., and stopped in Seattle along a planned voyage to multiple Alaska ports. ZB 335 carried dry cargo, 52,000 gallons of fuel and some hazardous materials.

The grounding occurred about 5 nm north of Port Protection, Alaska. Mariposa Reef appears on National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration charts, and Colclough said “all navigational aids in the area were operational at the time of the casualty.”

Weather at the time could not be confirmed. However, the Coast Guard air crew encountered high winds, with gusts reaching 45 mph during the rescue some five hours after the grounding. Visibility was 11.5 miles with a 3,500-foot cloud ceiling.

The tug and barge remained connected by the towline after the Coast Guard rescued the crew. The tug refloated with the tide before 0300 and the vessels drifted about 12 miles to Alvin Bay, where the Coast Guard cutters Liberty and Maple met them at about 0730 that morning.

Roughly 15 gallons of diesel escaped into the water around Mariposa Reef, the Alaska Division of Spill Prevention and Response determined. The agency also learned water intrusion into the engine room appeared to be coming from the tug’s shaft packing.

“The tug’s captain reported a sheen at Mariposa Reef that was caused by fuel escaping from the day tank vent as the tug listed and was rocked by waves,” the agency said on its website.

Alaska Commercial Divers of Ketchikan responded with its vessel Alaska Salvor. Greg Updike, co-owner of the salvage firm, said the vessel hit the shoal “right down the middle,” shearing off part of Ocean Eagle’s keel and rudders. Its stern also was damaged when the barge slammed into it after the grounding. The reef left multiple gashes in the vessel’s hull, one roughly 60 inches by 2 inches and another roughly 36 inches by 2 inches. There was also at least one fist-sized puncture.

Updike and his team made temporary hull repairs to prepare the vessels for the tow to Ketchikan, roughly 150 miles to the southeast. The barge sustained only minor damage.

Amak Towing of Ketchikan dispatched its 4,400-hp tractor tug Anna T and 2,200-hp conventional tug Jennie B to tow the vessels into port. Anna T towed the barge to Sitka where the Coast Guard cleared it to continue its delivery route. Jennie B began towing Ocean Eagle to Ketchikan for repairs but later required assistance from Anna T. The vessels arrived March 6.

Amak Towing declined to comment on the rescue tow, citing company policy not to discuss client business.

Ocean Eagle is the third tugboat that has grounded along the Inside Passage route since October. Samson Mariner struck Rosa Reef near Ketchikan on Feb. 15, allowing about 1,000 gallons of diesel to escape. And on Oct. 13, Nathan E. Stewart sank after grounding on Athlone Island northwest of Bella Bella, British Columbia, spilling up to 25,000 gallons of diesel.

In March 2016, Ocean Eagle and its barge grounded in Johnstone Strait, British Columbia, according to Transport Canada. There were no injuries or pollution in that case.

By Professional Mariner Staff