Quick action by bar pilot kept tanker off rocks
San Francisco Chronicle
January 29, 2009
Quick action by bar pilot kept tanker off rocks
Carl Nolte, Chronicle Staff Writer
Quick action by the ship pilot in control of the tanker Overseas Cleliamar helped prevent what could have been a serious accident in the Golden Gate when the ship suddenly lost all power at sunset Tuesday just after it passed under the Golden Gate Bridge.
Capt. Dave McCloy, a bar pilot for about a year, had just minutes to stop the tanker from crashing into the steep rockbound cliffs of the Marin Headlands just outside the Golden Gate.
McCloy had just ordered the ship’s helm put slightly to the right. So when the Overseas Cleliamar lost power, it was headed for the rocks.
McCloy acted fast. He directed the crew of the tanker to lower the starboard anchor, one of two massive anchors carried on the bow. He had the anchor lowered only partially, so that it would take hold in shallower water close to the shore.
The water in the strait is too deep for ships to anchor, and the shoreline drops off steeply on the Marin side, so there is little shallow water close to shore. The ship had to come very close to rocky Point Diablo before the anchor took hold and stopped the ship.
But McCloy had little choice: Without power or steering, anchoring close to shore was his only option.
“Capt. McCloy did a great job,” said Capt. Peter McIsaac, president of the San Francisco Bar Pilots Association, whose ship pilots are specially trained to guide ships through the bay.
He said McCloy faced a “very stressful” and unusual situation when the tanker had an electrical generator failure, shutting down power and steering.
The engines on ships will occasionally lose power, said Capt. Eric Dohm, a veteran tanker master and bar pilot, but it is “highly unusual” for a ship to lose both power and steering.
The ship regained power 10 minutes after the incident began, and was able to move back into the bay under its own power. It was inspected by a team of Coast Guard officials and divers Wednesday and will sail for its original destination once the Coast Guard says it is safe for the voyage to proceed.
The Overseas Cleliamar, which had unloaded its cargo of petroleum in Martinez, had no cargo aboard, but its fuel tanks were full of oil for the voyage from San Francisco Bay to its next port of call in Ecuador.
Tankers loaded with oil cargo are required to have tugboat escorts while moving in San Francisco Bay. But because the Overseas Cleliamar had no oil cargo, it did not have a tug escort. Nonetheless, when trouble developed, a tug named Z Four, which was in the vicinity, quickly came to the assistance of the ship. Five other tugs and the Coast Guard also responded to the emergency.
Observers on the Golden Gate Bridge watched the whole drama with growing foreboding. Alex Rau, a San Francisco resident who often rides his bike across the bridge and watches ships passing underneath, said he could see this one was in big trouble.
“I’ve never seen a ship that close to shore before,” Rau said.
Pictures posted on the Internet also show how close the tanker came to running aground. In some pictures, it appears that the Overseas Cleliamar had hit the rocks.
But McCloy and the ship’s crew acted just in time. “Everybody on that ship did a good job,” said Dohm, who went aboard the Overseas Cleliamar to assist McCloy after the tanker was anchored.
In the moments after the tanker lost power, the ship, which displaces 38,653 tons and is 741 feet long, was drifting in one of the most dangerous parts of the bay, a narrow strait lined by cliffs and rocks.
The currents at the Golden Gate are particularly strong and constantly changing. When the engine of the Overseas Cleliamar conked out, the current in the strait was moving out to sea at about 3 knots, fast enough to affect the movement of a ship. At 351 feet to bottom, that part of the Golden Gate is also the deepest part of the bay, too deep to safely anchor a ship.
“It is one of the worst places,” said Joan Lundstrom, chair of the Harbor Safety Committee for the Bay Region.
The area was the scene of one of the bay’s worst oil spills when two Standard Oil tankers collided under the Golden Gate Bridge in 1971, spilling 840,000 gallons of crude oil and killing more than 4,000 birds.
On the advice of his lawyer, McCloy spoke only to officials investigating the incident and made no public statements.
Dohm said McCloy had extensive experience on tanker ships and tug boats.
Ship pilots are veteran mariners with comprehensive local knowledge of the geography of the bay and its tides and currents. Both McIsaac, the head of the bar pilots, and Dohm said that pilots have been put through extensive training for just such an emergency, including training on electronic equipment at the California Maritime Academy in Vallejo that simulates emergency situations and on scale model ships at a pilot training facility in France.
The close call Tuesday was in contrast to an accident in November 2007, when the container ship Cosco Busan crashed into the base of one of the towers of the Bay Bridge and spilled 50,000 gallons of fuel oil. The state pilot commission’s investigators concluded that accident was the result of pilot error. Capt. John Cota, who has since retired and faces criminal charges in the case, was the pilot.
The Overseas Cleliamar, which carries petroleum products, is registered in the Marshall Islands, a small South Pacific nation, and has an international crew.