Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Fidley Watch: How it's Done

By Chris Philips, Managing Editor

Late last month a container ship in transit from Everett, Washington to the far eastern Russian port of Provideniya lost power due to a broken oil heater and went adrift off the coast of Haida Gwaii, or the Queen Charlotte Islands in British Columbia.

A Canadian Coast Guard mid-shore patrol vessel, the 162-foot, 4,800-HP Gordon Reid arrived at the scene to tow the ship, but could not keep a towline attached in strong winds and 15- to 20-foot waves and the ship again went adrift. The Barbara Foss was eventually contracted to tow the stricken vessel to the Port of Prince Rupert, about 90 nautical miles.

Two other vessels, the Canadian Coast Guard vessel Sir Wilfrid Laurier and US Coast Guard cutter Spar, were on-hand to render assistance," says Lieutenant Paul Pendergast, with the Canadian Navy's Joint Rescue Coordination Center at Navy Base Esquimalt, "but neither was equipped to tow the ship."

As in the US, Canada uses a vessel of opportunity system, and the Canadian Coast Guard describes a vessel of opportunity as any vessel, "...close enough to provide assistance to a vessel in distress." Under the Canada Shipping Act, as well as international law, every vessel at sea is required to assist in a distress situation.

Executive Director of the Puget Sound Marine Exchange, Captain John Ventjeer says any other country's maritime response agencies also have a tug of opportunity system, whether documented or not. "If they have AIS capability they can quickly identify where tugs are; it is just a matter then of how they are called out."

In the case of the Simushir, the vessel owners, Sakhalin Shipping Company, worked directly with Foss. As luck would have it theBarbara Foss is currently on a regular schedule between Whittier, Alaska and Prince Rupert, British Columbia, and happened to have been arriving about the same time as they received the call for assistance. The Barbara Foss delivered her cargo and went to assist at the Simushir's request.

"The guys did a good job," says Ron Burchett, an experienced tugboat captain and industry consultant based in British Columbia. "They exhibited first class seamanship." Burchett notes that the crew took the Barbara from Prince Rupert down the sheltered Hecate Strait and approached the stricken ship from the south, sheltered from the wind and waves by Haida Gwai.

"They did what they needed to do to get there on time," he says. Burchett says the Foss crew got a line on the Simushir on the second try, in 25- to 30-foot waves.

The 126-foot, 4,300-HP Barbara Foss was able to secure the Simushir, and keep her from breaking up against the pristine coastline of Haida Gwaii while the newer, larger and more powerful Gordon Reid could not. This isn't a reflection on the crew of the Canadian vessel, but rather a case of the right tool for the job. The crew of the Barbara Foss responded the way we expect West Coast tug crews to respond – quickly and professionally. As evidenced by the poorly-equipped anchor-handling tug Aiviq that lost a drill rig off Alaska in 2013, the vessels equipped to respond to emergencies such as this one are the vessels that perform these duties, day-in and day-out, 365 days a year.