Salvage experts mull plan for wrecked fishing boat on Marin coast, with cost a key concern
Marine salvage experts are honing in on possible solutions for removal of a damaged fishing vessel stranded on the rocky shoreline off the northern Marin County coast for the past week.
A leading possibility involves patching holes in the hull of the 90-foot boat and pumping it full of impermeable lightweight foam — both to make the vessel more buoyant and prevent water from infiltrating the main body before dragging it from the rocks with tugboats, according to Christian Lind of Petaluma-based Lind Marine Inc.
But funding for the mission, whatever approach should win approval, remains in question, as the U.S. Coast Guard, the state of California, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other agencies tackle the costly dilemma. The task is expected to cost several million dollars.
Neither the grounded American Challenger nor the Hunter, the tugboat that was towing it from Puget Sound to Ensenada, Mexico, to be scrapped, had insurance coverage for the journey, according to the Coast Guard and Shawn Griggs, a maritime lawyer who represents the owner of both vessels.
He said it was his understanding the owner, Ships International Inc., and its principal, Felix Vera, were not in position to bear the cost, either.
“That’s why the Coast Guard has taken operational control,” Griggs said.
The Coast Guard isn’t prepared to accept financial responsibility at this point, either, however. Funding for the initial response has come from the federal Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, which retains the right to seek reimbursement.
Efforts so far have included environmental surveys and some oil clean-up; thousands of feet of oil boom laid in Tomales Bay and elsewhere to protect sensitive habitat and commercial oyster beds; and assessment of the American Challenger itself, which, because of the inaccessibility of the fishing boat, required use of a helicopter to drop workers on board.
The 1975 American Challenger, long part of the Alaskan fishing fleet, was deemed obsolete some time ago and sold to Vera to be scuttled or resold out of country. It made it only as far south as Washington, first to Port Townsend and the Port Angeles, Griggs said. There, under state rules that limit moorings to 90 days before a vessel can be declared derelict, it had overstayed its welcome by months.
The state of Washington and the Coast Guard sector got involved trying to get the boat moved when Vera contracted COVID. He was intubated and in an induced coma, when Griggs, the custodian of his will, got involved in discussions about what to do.
Southern California tugboat Capt. Christian Lint, who had worked for Vera before, was brought up to tow the disabled American Challenger south.
Lint said the tow plan was laid out by the Coast Guard. He saw deficiencies right away that he said he noted to the Port Angeles office. He said they included too narrow tow wire, or line, and a Chinese-made steel shackle connecting the boats that he didn’t trust.
The tow line had to be replaced outside of Crescent City. The shackle failed in Bodega Bay, causing the American Challenger to go adrift and eventually land on the rocks about 300 feet from the tide line near the base of some cliffs north of Dillon Beach.
Lind, who is working with Ballard Marine Construction out of Seattle on surveys and salvage assessment, said the location is the worst thing about it.
“We wish it was in the middle of the ocean, or on the bottom. That would be better,” he said. “But where it is is terrible. It just adds a lot of difficulty being on the rocks. You can’t access it from shore. You can’t access it from water. So we can really only access it safely from the air, by helicopter — super expensive and dangerous and not an efficient way to work.
“But we’ve done more difficult salvages than this before... and we will be successful with this salvage with Ballard as long as the agencies are willing to put together funds to take care of this salvage.”
The Coast Guard and other public agencies have said little about what they plan to do. Previous occasions on which boats have been abandoned, once the fuel and fluids were drained, have inspired residents and environmental stewards to keep close watch of developments.
“The most current update is that the Unified Command is working to ensure first and foremost the safety of the public, responders, and environment,” an incident spokeswoman, Coast Guard Lt. Toni Zimmerle, said. “Due to its location, condition, and difficulty of accessing the vessel, the removal of the vessel remains to be determined.”
News that the boats were uninsured has only deepened fears that the rusted vessel will be left to break apart on the isolated shore, part of the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary
“As a resident and water person, we’re all concerned,” said one Dillon Beach resident Steven Werlin.
Werlin was checking crab pots with a friend on Friday morning and motored within about 50 yards of the rusted vessel during a high tide.
“I would say every bit of 80% of that boat is up on the rocks,” posing significant technical questions about how to get it off, he said.
Lind said he had no indication the Coast Guard or anyone else saw “walking way from this being a viable option.”
He added that the best solution to prevent it from happening again was through laws requiring boat owners to have insurance.
“You can’t drive your car around without insurance,” Lind said. “Why can you drive a boat around without insurance? I see this so often, and ultimately whatever agency ends up with this, it’s taxpayer money. It’s our money, so we’re going to pay for this, and we didn’t do anything wrong.“
You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.
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.