Shipwrecked fishing vessel north of Dillon Beach leaks small amount of motor oil
Marine surveyors finally got aboard the American Challenger fishing vessel Monday and began arranging to offload remnant fuel and fluids from the stranded boat, as heavy seas continued to crash over the bow and raise the heart rates of local environmental stewards and lovers of the coast.
The workers were dropped to the deck by helicopter after earlier attempts to find a way on board proved unsuccessful, because of high waves and rugged rocks in the ocean, a Coast Guard spokeswoman said.
The 90-foot boat had run aground more than two days earlier and remained perched in the rocks along a remote stretch of coastline between the Estero Americano and Dillon Beach, in part of the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary.
Some motor oil already has spilled, based on surface sheen observed Saturday morning during an overflight by U.S. Coast Guard personnel.
A prepared statement posted Monday evening by the California Office of Spill Prevention and Response referenced “minor sheening in the immediate vicinity of the vessel and along the shoreline” that teams had been cleaning up, but did not say whether that occurred subsequent to Saturday.
Coast Guard Lt. Toni Zimmerle, who has been briefing the media on the incident, said that information was not available late Monday.
The Coast Guard and partnering agencies, including the Office of Spill Prevention and Response, had urgently been seeking access to the vessel, which is off a rocky shoreline at the base of a cliff, finally resorting to helicopter to drop three people aboard. They had not removed any fluids by Monday evening or released an estimate of what was still on board, however, Lt. Toni Zimmerle said.
Southern California Tugboat Captain Christian Lint, who was towing the decommissioned fishing vessel with nobody aboard from Port Angeles, Washington to Mexico, where it was to have been scuttled, said only enough fuel for emergency operations had been left on the boat when he left port Feb. 28.
He wasn’t sure how much that was, as he had taken over a tow plan laid out by U.S. Coast Guard personnel before in Washington state after the owner of the boat fell critically with COVID-19 in Florida and missed his deadline to move it out of port.
Lint said the trip had gone fine until he reached Tomales Point, where a steel shackle used to link his 7,400-horsepower tug with the vessel failed, sending the American Challenger free and drifting back toward Bodega Bay with the tide.
He said he called the Coast Guard for assistance, and a cutter from Doran Beach stood by for hours while he brought the fishing boat alongside and tethered it. But then a large swell lifted his boat and the disconnected tow rope got sucked underneath. He feared starting the motor would wrap his propeller, so he called for a diver from Bodega Bay, who found the water too dark by Friday evening to see well enough to help.
Throughout, Lint said, he wondered why the Coast Guard wouldn't assist in either anchoring or caging the American Challenger so it wouldn’t run aground.
He’s not alone.
“We’re definitely disappointed at the Coast Guard,” said George Petty, the diver who went out to help. “We think the Coast Guard should have prevented that boat from going on the beach. I think that boat’s going to be permanent now.”
Marin County Fire Battalion Chief Bret McTigue, who was with the American Challenger on Monday afternoon, said contractors hired to help with the salvage were still trying to assess the stability of the boat and ascertain how much fuel and fluid was on board.
They also were building a rope system down the side of the cliff for the safe delivery of materials back and forth without the use of a costly helicopter, he said.
Amid continuing questions about whether the agency might have intervened during more than 12 hours in which the fishing boat was adrift and prevented it from running aground, Zimmerle, with San Francisco Sector, said her agency was still investigating the incident.
But earlier, she had said the commander of the 87-foot Coast Guard cutter Hawksbill, had determined it was not safe to put crew members aboard the American Challenger.
In the meantime, the Coast Guard had arranged deployment of several thousand feet of boom laid diagonally across Tomales Bay, from Tom’s Point to Pelican Point to protect commercial oyster beds in the area in the event more fuel should spill.
A narrow channel remained open so boats could pass on the Tomales Point side of the bay, though the Miller Park Boat Ramp had been closed to the public to support the operation and Point Reyes National Seashore personnel were advising kayakers and other boaters to remain in the south end of the bay.