Tugs help prevent collision

Oil tanker was on collision course with Valdez fishing boat

Posted: Sunday, July 22, 2001

ANCHORAGE -- Tug boats stopped an oil tanker on a collision course with a fishing boat and its outstretched net in Valdez Narrows earlier this month.

It was the first such "save" since escort tugs were deployed following the 1989 Exxon spill, oil company and Coast Guard officials said Friday.

The incident happened about 8 a.m. July 10 in the narrow channel connecting Port Valdez to Prince William Sound.

The 790-foot tanker Chevron Mississippi had departed from the Valdez terminal with a load of North Slope crude oil and rounded the point heading into the narrows when the pilot saw the fishing boat.

The tanker was being escorted by two tugs. One tug was tethered to the stern of the Chevron Mississippi, while another cruised alongside the tanker.

Both the Coast Guard and the tanker had broadcast announcements that a tanker was coming through. But nobody could raise fisherman Robert Widmann, whose 50-foot boat the Orion and a skiff had stretched a salmon seine net across the channel.

The huge tanker, traveling at 6 knots, couldn't stop quickly. The waterway, roughly three-quarters of a mile wide, was made even tighter by other fishing boats working off the sides, said Nigel Raithby, captain of the tug boat Aware. Calls to the fishing boat went unanswered. Coast Guard officers tracked the problem via radio and radar.

"The net was across the channel with a boat attached to either end," Raithby said. "We certainly couldn't go around, not without the risk of hitting the rocks."

If the tanker ran through the net, the fishing boat and skiff "would have ended up wrapped around the bow," he said.

The tanker let out five quick blasts on its whistle, the international "wake up" signal.

Then came the order from the tanker pilot: Stop us.

The 71,000-ton tanker stopped less than 300 feet from the fishing boat and net, said Coast Guard Lt. Keith Ropella, chief of the vessel traffic center in Valdez.

Fishermen routinely set nets in the Narrows, which acts as a pinchpoint for migrating salmon.

Widmann said Friday that he was concentrating on fish coming toward Valdez, as well as about five other fishing boats in the area. He said the crew thought a tanker was coming into Valdez, not going out. They didn't realize the tanker was approaching behind them until they heard the whistle and turned to see the looming behemoth.

"It wasn't a really super scary situation because I knew they had control of things," said Widmann, 59, who spends summers fishing out of Cordova and winters in Santa Cruz, Calif. "Mostly I was embarrassed. I should have been paying better attention."

Coast Guard officers, as well as officials with the Ship Escort Response Vessel System, said the happy ending reflected the training and equipment that have gone into making tanker transits safer. SERVS, a division of the Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., the oil-company consortium that runs the tanker port, was created in the wake of the Exxon spill to beef up escort and spill cleanup capability.

Not since the tethering of tugs to tankers began in the early 1990s has one had to haul a tanker to a stop, said Joe Kuchin, a SERVS manager in Valdez.

"This is a hugely significant thing," Kuchin said. "This is save No. 1."

Coast Guard officials also said it was the first time that a tanker ever had to stop in the Narrows, something tanker captains never want to do because that robs the lumbering ships of steering control. The Chevron Mississippi was delayed more than five minutes while the net was cleared, the Coast Guard said. The two tugs held the tanker's position during the wait.

Cmdr. Peyton Coleman, head of the Coast Guard Marine Safety Office in Valdez, presented commendations to the crews of the two tugs, operated by Crowley Marine Services, for helping avert a "possibly catastrophic outcome."

Widmann, whose boat was ordered to the dock after the incident, might face a penalty by the Coast Guard, which is still investigating, Ropella said.

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