Reefer ship survives blackout at mouth of Columbia River

A break-bulk reefer ship lost all power at the entrance to the Columbia River after a head gasket in an air compressor blew, and a bar pilot brought the wayward ship to a safe halt by ordering the anchor dropped.

The blackout occurred aboard Luzon Strait at about 0340 on May 27, the U.S. Coast Guard said. The 548-foot vessel began drifting across the channel and needed to be brought under control.

The Columbia River Bar Pilot on board, Capt. Robert Johnson, ordered the anchor dropped about one mile west of the North Jetty. Engineers later discovered that one of the two air compressors had blown a head gasket, causing both generators to overheat.

Johnson said he had boarded the vessel by helicopter at 0305 about 10 miles offshore in fair weather. The ship was passing the end of the South Jetty and encountering a strong ebb and river flow that combined to form a 6-knot current, when a complete blackout occurred.

“The bridge went dark for about one minute,” Johnson said. “Then the emergency generator came on line.”

Power was restored to the bridge, radar and steering, but the ship was drifting seaward and across the channel, and Johnson ordered the anchor manned for letting go. The chief engineer reported that repairs would take some time, so the anchor was dropped on the north edge of the channel in a depth of 60 feet with eight shots of chain — 720 feet — run out.

Johnson credited his training with aiding his decision-making during the emergency. He had recently taken the Emergency Shiphandling course on the Pacific Maritime Institute simulator in Seattle.

“This is a fabulous tool for training in bridge resource management,” he said. “Bar pilots re-take the course every five years.”

The Coast Guard Group/Air Station Astoria was contacted at 0342 and informed of the situation.

The repair was completed aboard Luzon Strait, and electrical power was restored by 0640, when the main engine was restarted. All systems were tested at anchor; at 0717 the pilot informed the Coast Guard that the ship was now seaworthy. A Coast Guard inspector conducted a brief sea trial, and the ship was allowed to continue on its way to load logs in Longview, Wash.

The anchor was raised at 0843, and the ship proceeded four miles southwest to pick up the Coast Guard’s local inspector who arrived on a 47-foot lifeboat from the Cape Disappointment Station. For the next one and a half hours, the crew demonstrated engine stop/start, forward/reverse and full helm port/starboard. At 1039, the ship was allowed to proceed into the Columbia River.

The Luzon Strait operator, Belgium-based Seatrade Reefer Chartering NV, didn’t respond to an e-mail request for comment.

Peter J. Marsh

By Professional Mariner Staff