Ahh the fun never stops here at Western Towboat. We come into Dutch Harbor and have to land our 300 foot long barge into a 400 foot opening with 50 knot winds blowing parallel to the dock. Fortunately we had two other tugs to help us out and all went well. Then we go over to the fuel dock and start replenishing our supply. We were down to less than 3 days of fuel left and would have been screwed if we didn’t get the weather window that allowed us to get in. It also sucks to be on a tug low on fuel because it gets thrown around so much more in a seaway. By the time we got in we were 400000lbs, 200 tons lighter than when the tug is full of fuel. So we’re 3 hours into fueling, Mitch and I get back from a quick run to the grocery store to pick up a couple days of fresh produce. The produce section is pretty well wiped out. Why? Well because the freighter that brings all the supplies into Dutch Harbor is due in a 6:00 tomorrow morning. Guess where that freighter needs to park. Yup, right where we just parked the barge carrying the crane that will very soon be unloading that same ship. But for now we have to go back out in 50+ knot winds and move the barge to another berth. The winds a bit trickier than before and we have a heck of a time getting it into it’s new berth. Finally at 9:00 at night we’re back on the dock and all is well with the world.
All was well with the world. The next morning I awake at 6:00 am to the James Dunlap, one of the other tugs in the bay, coming over to tell us the our barge had broken free and was on the beach. No not the barge we were tied up to, the other one. You know the one that is loaded with shipping containers for Bethel and Nome. We were supposed to be leaving with it that night to start our way north. The container barge was rafted up to another barge on a mooring buoy in the bay. Shore stations reported 85 knot winds that night. The lines holding the barges together parted and off our barge went. So off we went half asleep into the pitch black morning and still howling winds running to go and look for our barge. We were only underway for about 5 minutes when we got the report that it had run hard aground in Summer Bay. The tide was going out and there was nothing we could do, so the Westrac II continued on to explore the scene by water while James and Mitch hopped in a Dunlap truck and took off to check it out by land. The barge was hard aground on a rocky stretch in the bay with one of the skegs ripped off and a visible hole in the bottom of the stern.
High tide was at 4:00pm so around noon we started preparing for our salvage effort. The coast guard was leery about giving us permission to pull it off the beach. The were particularly concerned about the explosives and other hazardous materials on board. The main office dealt with the coasties while we collected the emergency tow lines from the Westrac II and the James Dulap. Shackling them together gave us 1200 feet of 5” line. The barge was in too shallow of water for either of the Western Tugs to get into, so we needed the 1200′ of line so that the Saratoga, another Dunlap tug, with her 5 foot draft could get one of our guys on board to hook up the tow line. By 2 o’clock we’ve got the soft line connected to our tow gear and the barge. Now we take the Westrac II, the smaller tug from our company, and run bridles from our bow to her tow gear. Unfortunately the bridles were steel cable and by this time we had a 10 foot swell running. Naturally the steel cable has no give to it and it was dangerous as hell hooking this thing up, but we had one guy whose only job was to watch the swell and give us plenty of warning before the cables came tight so that we could all clear out. Ok, so now we got the Westrac II hooked to the bow of the Ocean Mariner, hooked to 1200 feet of line so that we can stay in the deep water, hooked to the port bow of the barge. The barge is hard aground along it’s entire starboard side and stern with one skeg torn off and god knows what the bottom looks like. It’s two hours until high tide and we start pulling. The tow line snaps tight, it with a defening clap as it’s stretched so tight hundreds of gallons of water is wrung out at once. We’re all hiding behind the stacks on the Texas deck expecting this line to come flinging back with enough force to kill any of us instantly. The line is now stretched to about a 3″ diameter there’s so much pressure on it, but it’s holding. The barge moves about 3 feet and then holds fast. We spend 30 minutes with both tugs pulling full throttle, then as we’re just beginning to get complacent, the tow wire starts spinning off the winch as the stern erupts in a cloud of smoke. Our huge hydraulic pumps couldn’t keep up with the load we were trying to pull and allowed the winch drum to spin against it’s enormous brake pads resulting in a noxious cloud of burning brake dust. Once the smoke cleared we went to work shackling support struts from the drum to the winch frame to keep the drum from spinning. There’s no way that thing’s gonna spin now. Of course the swell is still running, it’s starting to rain and we’re all really on edge. Nobody on either of the boat crews had done this before and the loads involved are enormous. The barge is loaded with about 2100 tons of cargo, plus the weight of the barge itself. Add to that the friction of it being hard on the rocks. On the other side is a combined 6000hp connect to props the size of Volkswagens. In the middle is a 5″ piece of 8 plait line. I’m really impressed with the load that line is able to take. Finally at 3:50 we broke the barge off the rocks and began to pull it out into the bay.
Now the coast guard reluctantly gave us permission to try and pull the barge off the beach. They wanted us to wait until tomorrow after divers had gone out and surveyed the bottom. Problem with that is that the barge will be sitting in the surf smashing against the rocks for another 24 hours. If it isn’t trashed now, it definitely will be by then. So here we are with the barge off the beach. It’s listing badly to starboard and aft. It’s designed with at least 4 different chambers in it. As long as they aren’t all holed, we should be ok to get it to the dock. But wait! Remember the hazmat and explosives we have on board. Now that the we have the barge off the beach, the coast guard won’t let us bring it anywhere near town. I’m not sure what the logic is, but if something goes wrong, better to trash the pristine area outside of town rather than nasty old Dutch Harbor and all their emergency response gear. Lucky for us, it looks like the barge isn’t sinking. We think that it’s holed pretty badly in at least one spot, but it’s below the water line and there’s no way for the air in the barge to escape so the water can’t come in. We were told to do circles in this bay a mile from town until morning. If the barge still hasn’t taken on any water then, then the coast guard might allow us to come into port.
This morning we got the word that we could come in and tie off to a buoy in Captain’s Bay. We’re sitting here until divers can come out and check the bottom. Until then, who knows we’re just going to be cooling our heels.