Lawmaker hitches ride to Calif. on an oil tanker

Posted: Thursday, October 13, 2005

The behemoth moved beneath my feet.

I stood on a 952-foot-long, manmade mass, filled with more than a half million barrels of North Slope crude. We were moving through the Gulf of Alaska at 20 knots, with only a barely noticeable vibration beneath me. I was on the deck of the SS Denali, which seemed to stretch out forever into the distance, heading for Cherry Point, Wash.

In the two days since I boarded at Valdez, I saw every nook and cranny of the ship: the engine room, crew quarters, bridge and boiler room. The crew was proud of every inch. They should be. They kept metal gleaming and painted surfaces clean to the touch. I wondered when I would be overcome with the smell of crude oil, but it never happened during my seven days on board.

The SS Denali is a colossal double-hulled ship with the latest navigation and communication equipment. The draft, or distance between the water line and the ship's keel is 5914 feet. Crude oil is pumped from the dock in Valdez in up to 15 separate compartments. It is then vented up and back through a series of pipes to keep vapors away from men and engines.

The engine room is a vast system of pumps, pistons, gauges, access ports, ladders and a main propeller shaft, 2 feet in diameter and 70 feet long, rotating at 86 revolutions per minute while moving a gargantuan five-bladed propeller.

Capt. John Merrigan, 42, was in charge of all this and led by example. He appeared to be everywhere, inspecting, observing and moved with a purpose. The men jumped when he spoke because they respected him. They knew his commands were designed to get the oil to port in the least time and as safely as possible. Merrigan, the Denali's skipper and graduate of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, literally worked his way up through the ranks.

On the second day, we received word by satellite phone that the company wanted us to turn south for Long Beach, Calif., where the crude was needed. Immediately, the giant tanker turned starboard and took a new heading. Out of sight of land since leaving Valdez while 225 miles offshore, the navigator calculated our precise position within several feet. He had more than one Global Positioning System to aid him, including older triangulating systems and navigational aids. The radar on top of the bridge sweeps 360 degrees at all times, looking for anything that could strike the ship.

I noticed, too, that a decidedly low-tech watch system was included alongside the electronics. Two crewmen with binoculars constantly flanked the bridge keeping watch. They looked for things technology might miss. I felt a straightforward sense of confidence in the men and sophisticated equipment directing us and keeping us safe.

During my week on board, I observed not less than three complete fire and safety drills involving everyone. All were required to clearly understand the use of the safety equipment. This scrutiny is routine on the Denali. Not surprisingly, the Alaska Tanker Co. awarded the ship's crew the President's Health, Safety and Environment Excellence Award this summer, an honor given to the ship with the best safety record. Prior to my coming aboard, it turned over its 3,000th hour of continuous operation without a major incident.

When I stepped off the Denali in Long Beach, I admit I was glad to get solid earth under my feet again. But I had to admire everything I witnessed - the can-do attitude, the hard work, the constant effort at safety, the sheer power and size of the engine and ship, the professionalism of the crew and the intelligence and dignity of the captain.

The trip was fascinating and I learned how well Alaska is served by this safe means of transporting oil. If all industry were as efficient and safety conscious as the Denali's crew, Alaska's economy would be the envy of the world.

• Rep. Vic Kohring, R-Wasilla, is chairman of the Oil and Gas Committee.

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