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The sun has just gone down. It’s 0020. In the northwester sky the sun will hang just under the horizon and this three and a half hour sunset is the only clue that we are 53 degrees 39 minutes north. I am on the F/V Alaskan Lady. She and her crew of four with an additional 13 beach-cleaning personal are all part of a huge oil spill clean-up project, in and around Skan Bay on Unalaska Island.
When I first arrived in Skan Bay the visibility was about half a mile, just enough for the skipper of the M/V Defender, a petrol boat used for transfer of personnel, to make out the F/V Alaskan Lady at Koff point just inside the bay. If the weather was more kind and I was to look across the bay I would have seen the 400 foot aft section of a 700-foot bulk vessel sitting on the shoals, those thirty foot shallows both her demise and her final resting place.
In the summer it’s hard to remember just how brutal Alaska and the Bering Sea can be. As I sit in the bow of a skiff several days later looking at the ripped and shredded frontal region where the sea tore the bow off of the M/V Selendang Ayu I shiver thinking of the force that nature so easily brought to bear.
This whole mess was a big accident. It always is. Who asked for engine trouble in the meanest body of water on earth? Who asked for the storm of the year with 50 foot waves and winds up to 70 miles an hour, with blowing snow and seas temperatures below 23 degrees? To get on a USCG coast guard chopper, only to have it crash? But the reality of the ocean is such. A load of soybeans from Seattle bound for Xiamen, China, winter in the North Pacific, a string of problems no doubt all set into motion even before the vessel ever slipped her lines in Seattle. The final and critical factor in her demise was a ruptured cylinder liner on the afternoon of December 6, 2004. The choice to be made; on one hand run the engine until safe harbor could be found, or on the other shut down the main and try to replace a 3 ton cylinder liner in storm conditions in the Bering Sea.
At this point the vessel is about 100 miles from Unalaska, and Dutch Harbor, but if they make for this refuge the engine will undoubtedly destroy itself, and in reality there is no real way to know if the main engine will make it that far. If the engine is destroyed the captain will most likely lose his job; if the engine destroys itself before getting to the dock the captain may be also found liable for any other damage his vessel causes. Tug vessels and other means to maneuver her can always be used, but in any case the captain’s` career is over. The second option is more risky but if it works it will save the captain’s career. Shut down the main engine and fix the problem. Not a very sure bet but at least no engine, or jobs will be lost. Hindsight being almost always more impeccable than foresight, the captain lost his job anyway, and I got one. As a mate on a vessel helping clean up Alaska’s third largest oil spill, 424,000 gallons of bunkers C (heavy fuel oil) and 18,000 gallons of diesel oil.
Rotten soybeans create an unearthly smell of foulness. Mixed with oil it smells like dog excrement. As it turns out a storm of this ferocity beat the soybean oil mixture into every crevice on shore. The people cleaning up tell me of patches of oily residue 50 foot up rock cliffs. According to the site biologist the foxes have taken the brunt of the impact. They attempt to clean their paws after waking in the tide line and subsequently they get very sick and die. As the large clean up bags come off the beach, full of oily waste, and the people come back from a full 12 hours of scraping rocks, it all becomes clear to me; we have no control over any of this. It’s all a game we attempt to play, to seem like we can deal but we can’t. Like the 8 inch steel cable passed to the drifting and dieing M/V Selendang Ayu that snapped after pulling for 8 long hours, it is all a futile attempt at making things better. The project may be out of money, the deep pockets of the insurance company have now been turned inside out, Alaska may pick up the bill, but who knows? So we swat at flies, and do something to mitigate the damage.
Unalaska Island is stunning in its geography. The ocean comes right to the land in hard cliffs that seem to stand defiant but worn by constant bombardment of the great north’s fury. Snow-capped green hills touch the sky graced with fog and low hanging clouds, and at special times before or after the constantly drizzling rain and snow, bright crisp sunny days defy the imagination with their sharpness and beauty. Bold eagles play on the grassy slopes and rip at fish on the gravel beaches.
The abundance of the sea is unbelievable. Anywhere you drop a hook you can catch halibut or cod. Salmon jump, as their bright bellies flash in the crystal clear water. Throw in a crab pot and in a day you can fill it with tanner crab or King. Birds of many varieties grace the skies. Seals, otter, okra and whales poke their heads above the sea. The Aleutian Chain of islands is a virtual paradise for sea life and birds, as well as a shipping mega highway.
Thousands of ships every year make the trip via the great circle, sailing along the curve of the earth to and from Asia to ports on the west coast of America. How does the trade deficit come to our country? Mostly by ship, and most of them run though the Aleutians, through the Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska, and the North Pacific, and every year those waters hold life and death in their blackness.
When a ship such as the M/V Selendang Ayu breaks in half, a super tanker runs aground or a ferryboat crashes into the pier the nation looks with shocked eyes at an industry that most of America seems to forget exists when all things go well. People work on ships for years without ever witnessing any misfortune. What people tend to forget is that working on the water is a dynamic job much like flying an airplane, or any other skilled profession.
There is very little true control of things at certain junctures in our work. We sailors live knowing that we are floating around in a steel box that burns, explodes and sinks. It can kill or crush our fragile bodies at any moment. The sea is not gentle. We can get swept overboard, die of hypothermia. In my short time sailing I have been in 70-foot seas and 120 knot winds. I have seen 600-foot ships role 40 degrees in the wake of monstrous rogue waves. I have seen ships broken in half, fishing boats grounded and filled with sand, sail vessels capsized, tug boats aground, people cut in half from cables, cranes hitting bridges, barges hitting bridges, tug boats rolling over, vessels colliding.
Next time you go to get your soy latté, think of the M/V Selendang Ayu her back broken on the rocks in 40 foot white caps as she is ripped in half like a beer can and her crew is committed to the icy coffin of the Bering sea, her cargo of soy beans and fuel oil spewing into the angry seas, the end results of fate and trade, poor planning, imprudent decisions and ill fortune.
DAN WRIGHT hails from Humboldt County, California. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org