Severe storm brings trans-Pacific tow of 658-foot laker to an abrupt end

Spencer Ostrom first went fishing with his dad when he was only 9 years old. They trolled for salmon from a 42-foot boat in the open waters off British Columbia. Toward the end of the summer they would go 100 miles or so offshore to catch and freeze albacore tuna. The budding young fisherman soon realized that it was those times when they were out of sight of land that he most enjoyed. He began to long for more.

At the age of 23, he booked a plane ticket for Fiji to look for a berth on a tuna boat. He found it and also experienced the excitement of ocean weather and the world's ports as tuna fishing took him to Texas and then back, through the Panama Canal, to the South Pacific. Returning to school, Ostrom matched his experience with earned nautical credentials. This qualified him for work on deep-sea tugs.

In 2008, when he was 42, he returned to offshore work as chief officer on a Canadian-owned and Dominica-flagged oceangoing tug. Pacific Hickory (ex-Atlantic Hickory) was built by Saint John Shipbuilding of New Brunswick in 1973 to a design by Robert Allan Sr. The 149-by-37-foot boat is powered by a pair of 20-cylinder EMD 645E7 engines that give her 7,200 hp and a 100-ton bollard pull. Originally built to push a paper barge, the vessel is fitted with a secondary elevated wheelhouse. This is a big powerful tug.

Six years after Hickory was built, Algoport, a 658-by-75.8-foot bulk carrier, was launched at Collingwood Shipyards in Ontario. Together with a sister, she was an aft-house, gravity-feed self-unloader. Designed for work on the Great Lakes and Saint Lawrence Seaway, she was Canadian registered and classed by Lloyds as 100 A1 Great Lakes & Gulf of St. Lawrence, Nova Scotia Class. The vessels served their owners well, but they were well under the Seawaymax dimensions, which are 740 by 78 feet.

In 2007, the owners decided to have new fore bodies built in China. Algoport and her sister, Algobay, were to be taken to China, where the smaller old fore bodies would be cut off and replaced by the new fore bodies that would bring the ships up to the Seawaymax dimensions. Algobay was sent off under tow in 2008 and arrived at the Chengxi Shipyard in Jiangyin, China, after a three-and-a-half-month trip.

In April of 2009, Algoport was dry-docked for hull strengthening in preparation for her journey to China. She also had new bridge wings added to meet Panama Canal regulations. (See:

She left Hamilton, Ontario, under her own power at the end of June 2009 with the destination of Balboa, Panama, at the Pacific end of the canal. Passing through the canal on July 19, she went to anchor near Balboa to rendezvous with Pacific Hickory, which was to tow her for the balance of her voyage to China.

As the ship's crew departed for home, Ostrom and his team began work to make up for towing. A rigging crew from shore had already boarded the ship to affix a pair of Smit brackets to the forward deck. With doubler plates to spread the load, these would be the base for the towing bridles and include a fail-safe quick release.

In addition to Ostrom, the 10-member crew included the Canadian master, Capt. Glen Llewellyn; a Philippine second officer, Max Agaro; and a Canadian chief engineer, Don Parmiter. The six additional engine room and deck crew were from the Philippines. As chief officer, Ostrom had, in addition to his 0400-to-0800 watches, responsibilities that included maintenance of the deck machinery and towing gear. This included the Burrard Iron Works towing winch. This massive side-by-side, twin-drum machine carried 3,600 feet of 2.5-inch towing wire on each spool. Each of the two towlines weighed 16 tons.

The tow was rigged with two shots of 3-inch chain forming the bridles that came together on a fishplate with 85-ton shackles. Another shot of 3-inch chain made up the surge chain that was then shackled to a spelter socket on the end of the towline. The tug and tow departed Balboa for Honolulu toward the end of July.

"With 2,600 feet of tow wire out, the ship towed well. The tug was making 8 to 10 knots in good weather and burning less than the 1,000 liters per hour that it burns with a heavy tow," Ostrom recalled.

Much of the 4,000-nm tow from Balboa to Honolulu was uneventful. Every few days, weather permitting, the crew was required to launch their rescue craft and board the ship to assure that everything was all right.

"One day while we were on the ship," Ostrom recounted, "the wind died right down and it was very sultry. When we got back to the tug, the barometer had dropped five millibars."

This was the category 4 hurricane Felicia with winds reaching 125 knots. The tug and tow managed to avoid the worst of it by turning south, which Ostrom explained is the classic navigator's response to a summer hurricane in the northern Pacific. Through the heavy seas that they encountered, Algoport continued to follow obediently on the towline.

After a fuelling stop in Honolulu, they got underway for the second leg of the voyage to Shanghai, a distance of 4,300 nautical miles. Ten days out of Hawaii they again encountered a depression with some very bad weather.

"Our weather routing system advised us to go south again, but the storm also turned south. We were bucking winds of 45 knots and higher with seas over seven meters. We were in the bad weather for three days and making only 1.5 to 2 knots," Ostrom explained. "Just jogging and trying not to bust anything."

On the fourth day, the weather was forecast to come down. At dusk, around 1800 they saw a red flashing light on the tow. It was a warning light that had been rigged to alert them should water get into the tunnel that contained the conveyor belt running the length of the ship to take cargo from the bins in the holds aft to the offloading machinery. Ostrom stood his 0400-to-0800 watch on Sept. 6, 2009, and worried about the tow.

"During the night the wind aspect had not changed, but the aspect of the tow had changed, which told me that something had changed on the tow. It was no longer lying to port, but had shifted to the starboard side."

With the winds still blowing 25 to 35 knots, there was no opportunity to board the ship to inspect. After his watch, Ostrom went to bed.

"At 1100 there was a banging on my door," he said, and he heard someone shout, "We're losing the ship!"

"I ran out on deck, partially dressed, to the brake wheel located just above the winch house beside the aft control station," he continued. "The wire was leading under the tug's counter and we were moving sideways. The air for the abort system was not live to the winch, so I began to turn the brake wheel. I got it off enough to begin the abort, but then the air came on and the abort mechanism released. I yelled at everyone to get clear. In maybe 30 seconds, the last of the 16-tons of wire had run off the drum. It sounded like a siren, and the drum kept turning for a good five minutes after the bitter end had come off taking a couple of divots out of the steel after deck as it went overboard."

Once detached from their tow, nothing remained for the tug crew to do but to watch the final death throes of the ship. They did not last long. Half way up the ship's foredeck, the sea was already beginning the work.

"From the time that we aborted the tow until the bow separated and sank was about 12 minutes," recalled Ostrom. "There was a cofferdam between the hold and engine room bulkhead that kept the stern afloat for a bit, but within about 50 minutes, the stern went down also. It took about one hour and 10 minutes for the whole thing. The whole crew was on deck to watch. It was like a movie — surreal."

They were in the West Mariana Basin about six days out of Shanghai. In spite of not having a tow, Pacific Hickory still had a contracted voyage to complete. In Singapore there was paperwork, including documentation for the sinking of a Canadian-registered vessel. The newly completed bow section for Algoport was now orphaned. The Algoma Central Corp. contracted for a new aft section with engine room and accommodation block to be constructed and attached to the new fore body that had been prepared for Algoport.

Very few people watching the new ship pass through the Welland Canal or the locks on the Saint Lawrence Seaway will have any idea of the story behind the building of the ship and the demise of her predecessor. But as Ostrom continues his deep-sea career, he will have a story that exceeds anything that he might have imagined on his dad's little fishing boat.

By Professional Mariner Staff