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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.

John Finger, a partner with Hog Island Oyster Company in Marshall, which has 160 acres of oyster beds in the bay and is one of four nearby commercial farms, praised the Coast Guard’s approach to safeguard the waterway and said the absence of more fuel in the water was gratifying.

“So far so good,” Finger said.

Many people were looking beyond the threat of a spill to the future of the American Challenger, however, fearful that history might be repeated and the vessel abandoned, once it’s drained.

Zimmerle said the Coast Guard had federalized the response, “so we are ensuring that whatever needs to happen happens to complete the salvage operations as safely as possible.”

But the confusing jurisdictional puzzle that determines where responsibility rests for sunken and beached boats — not to mention, the expense — has often resulted in inaction along the coast and even inland waterways.

Volunteers often have been left to clean up the wreckage of battered boats that have washed ashore and left unclaimed.

A 54-foot steel-hulled fishing boat that ran aground at South Salmon Beach in Sonoma County in 2016 is still there — completely stripped and nearly buried, but apparently destined to remain.

Inverness resident Richard James, known as the “Coastodian” because of the vast amount of time he spends collecting beach and ocean litter each year, said that’s what he’s concerned about.

“OK, they get the oil and the lubricants off, and then they walk away, and then that thing just sits there and looks like hell and then falls into a million pieces,” James said. “We want to make sure this thing doesn’t end up like that green boat up on Salmon Creek and become permanent beach trash.”

The American Challenger raises special concerns because it landed in such an inaccessible location, and at a precarious point in the surf.

No oiled wildlife has been observed, but the Coast Guard has asked the public not to approach any that in the area that may be harmed and instead call the Oiled Wildlife Care Network at 877-823-6926.

Staff Writer Ethan Varian contributed to this story. You can reach Staff Writer Ethan Varian at ethan.varian@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5412. On Twitter @ethanvarian

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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