Salvors rescue ship drifting off coast of Washington

Three American tugs and a Canadian salvage crew airlifted by helicopter onto the deck of a drifting supertanker kept the ship from running aground on the Washington coast.

Atigun Pass, in Portland, Ore., where it had been laid up with sistership Keystone Canyon since 1995.

On the day before Thanksgiving, the 350-foot tug De Da was towing the 906-foot Atigun Pass, a decommissioned crude carrier on its way to China for scrapping, when they encountered a severe storm. As 30-foot waves and 60-mph winds buffeted the vessels, the 3-inch steel towline snapped and the tanker began drifting toward the coast.

The crew of De Da spent two days vainly attempting to reconnect with Atigun Pass, as it drifted northeast at 2 to 3 knots, toward the Long Beach area of southwest Washington. Atigun Pass was carrying some 20,000 gallons of heavy fuel that had solidified after a long lay-up. The ship came within 20 miles of Long Beach and the entrance to Willapa Bay, an environmentally sensitive area holding commercial oyster beds.

The three tugs arrived on the scene on Thanksgiving Day. The first was the 126-foot Barbara Foss, the Straits of Juan de Fuca rescue tug permanently stationed in Neah Bay at the northwest tip of the Olympic Peninsula. It was joined by two 149-foot Crowley offshore tugs, Sea Victory from Astoria, Ore., and Sea Venture from Seattle. The Foss crew managed to pick up Atigun Pass’ synthetic backup line floating off the stern and pass it to De Da. The tow resumed for a couple of hours, gaining the rescue team a little more sea room before this line also broke.

Overnight, the shipping agent, the Netherlands company Smit International, called in an emergency team from Smit’s Canadian subsidiary, Rivtow of British Columbia. The next day a six-man team was lowered onto the pitching deck by a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter based in Astoria.

“The first thing we did was to attach a high-strength aramid line from the Atigun Pass to the Sea Victory,” said Mitch Hughes, fleet systems manager for Rivtow-Smit. “The tug then started to tow the ship into the wind. This not only put a tug back in control, but also stabilized the ship, which allowed us to make an attempt to retrieve the emergency towline. We made three unsuccessful attempts to lasso the emergency towline. That evening we were helicoptered off the ship.”

Sea Victory, one of three tugs that came to assist the drifting tanker, backs up to the ship in an attempt to retrieve the broken towline.

Throughout the night Sea Victory continued to hold the ship offshore. By the next morning, the weather had moderated and the sea state improved considerably.

“We were airlifted back to the ship, this time by the Columbia River Bar Pilots helicopter,” Hughes continued. “We then made one more attempt to lasso the emergency line. This time we succeeded and passed the line down to the Barbara Foss.” (She is a smaller and more maneuverable tug with better fendering, enabling her to lie alongside the ship.)

The last thing the Canadian team did was rig an emergency towline, using two aramid lines connected to a floating line, which was left trailing the ship.

The Barbara Foss crew was then able to transfer the line to the Chinese crew of De Da, who had installed a spare steel cable on the winch. De Da then took control of the ship. Five days after the first towline broke, the journey to the scrap yard resumed, with Sea Venture escorting the 24-year-old tanker to the 200-mile limit.

“I would like to personally thank the crews on the Sea Victory, Sea Venture and Barbara Foss for a job well done,” Hughes said.

According to Coast Guard Lt. Jeffrey Pile of the Marine Safety Office in Portland, Ore., the ship was not considered a major pollution threat. If the rescue attempt had failed, Capt. James D. Spitzer, the federal on-scene coordinator, was considering opening the ship’s ballast tanks to increase the draft, thus grounding it several miles off the beach.

In 1999, the wood chip carrier New Carissa dragged its anchor off Coos Bay, Ore., in a winter storm, ran aground, broke up and eventually spilled more than 70,000 gallons of fuel oil. A 440-foot section of the ship was towed to sea and sunk with a torpedo, but the stern remains beached in the surf.

Atigun Pass is one of four single-hulled tankers that had been laid up in Portland Harbor since 1995. All are expected to be scrapped in the coming months. The others are Brooks Range, which has already been delivered to China, Thompson Pass and Keystone Canyon. Litton Avondale Industries built the 165,000-dwt ships for BP between 1976 and 1978.

Ownership of Atigun Pass was transferred to the Shanghai Salvage Co. before it left the United States. Smit International paid for the rescue operation.



By Professional Mariner Staff