Thursday, June 30, 2011

Opinion: Columbia & Willamette River Vortex

By David Dent

June 2011

Good Friday this year wasn’t really very good for the M/V Suzaki Wing. She reportedly lost power while steaming downstream, fully laden with logs, and managed to collide not only with the paper mill dock at Wauna, Oregon, but also with a Tidewater barge that happened to be alongside at the time. A regular trifecta of marine disasters.

Historically, vessels that suffer engine and/or steering mishaps while transiting the Columbia and Willamette Rivers will unerringly be drawn to targets of high value, or onto hard spots that result in the maximum damage to the vessel. To quote a friend, “They go for the shiny spots”.

In the early 80’s the M/V Ming Winter lost power while heading downstream above Rainier, Oregon, and while there were miles and miles of farmland and undeveloped river frontage on either side, she torpedoed the cooling water intake for the then-active Trojan Nuclear Plant.

Not long afterward, a regular caller, the tanker Mobiloil, lost steering while inbound with a full load of mixed petroleum products. Again, in spite of being in an area on the Columbia River that was mostly undeveloped and soft, she managed to hit the one good hard spot, Warrior Rock, at the downstream end of Sauvie Island. The result was thousands of tons of oil in the river, and the Mobiloil being declared a constructive total loss. Now we know why there is a lighthouse there.

In September 1999, the Turkish bulk carrier M/V Cenk Kaptanoglu, inbound with steel products, lost steering approaching the Kalama, Washington area and managed to miss all of the empty shoreline, but did manage to “t-bone” the relatively new North Kalama Cargo Dock. Another ship’s bridge with wide-eyed occupants, and one more disaster enhanced by some apparent targeting vortex that seems to vex our area.

Also in 1999, fully-loaded grain barge 61 veered off to port while inbound on the Willamette River, and, bypassing a lot of empty shoreline, she managed to crash through the downstream catwalk at the grain elevator at Terminal 5. This was a missed golden opportunity because the barge just barely scraped the stern of a ship at the berth.

Those of us who benefit from these disasters, including salvage companies, surveyors, ship repair yards, marine construction companies and the like, can only wonder at the bounty right here in our own backyard. Ship’s masters, pilots and ship owners probably have a different attitude. But, history makes it abundantly clear that one only has to wait awhile before the next contact is made. I wonder how the Port of Longview is coming along with their new grain terminal?

David Dent is a marine surveyor in Portland, Oregon.