Marin County grounding response halts without removal of wreck

The pollution prevention response effort for the grounded fishing vessel American Challenger is now over, but the fate of the wreck herself is uncertain. According to the local Press Democrat, the source of financing for a wreck removal project is unclear, and the boat might end up abandoned where she sits on the shore of Bodega Bay, California.

On March 5th US Coast Guard Sector San Francisco received a report that the decommissioned fishing vessel American Challenger was adrift after the tug that was towing her lost propulsion.

The cutter Hawksbill diverted to the scene to monitor both vessels. In deteriorating sea conditions and visibility, an emergency tow proved to be impossible. At about 01:00 the following morning the crew of the Hawksbill reported that the Challenger had gone aground on a rocky shore south of Estero de San Antonio, which is about 40nm to the northwest of San Francisco.

Light sheening was observed near the vessel. As a precautionary measure first responders deployed thousands of feet of containment boom to protect environmentally sensitive areas to the south. Over the course of the following week, marine surveyors used a helicopter service to board the wreck several times to conduct tank soundings and damage assessments.

On Sunday March 14th the response command reported that the wreck had rolled onto its side, and further boardings had been discontinued for safety reasons. No sheening near the vessel had been reported since Wednesday, and the command believed that the risk of oil pollution was minimal.

After a net environmental benefit analysis, NOAA and the California Department of Wildlife recommended removing the containment booms; pollution control teams were scheduled to begin reeling them back in on Monday March 15th.

The command resourced the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund to pay for the initial response, which thus far had cost some $1.5m. However, that funding does not cover wreck removal. Any salvage operation would be logistically challenging, since the wreck is sitting on an isolated rock outcropping in a remote location. There is no easy access from the water or from land. Workers so far have had to be put aboard by helicopter.

The source of funding for a wreck removal effort was unclear and the response operation will stand down, at least temporarily.

About 7,400 ft of boom that was deployed primarily in Tomales Bay would also be removed, beginning on March 15th.

Salvage workers had inspected all but four of 17 fuel tanks and confirmed that they had been drained prior to the vessel’s departure from Puget Sound.

The listing of the vessel raised fears that its hull might have begun to crush. The 2-degree shift on March 10th had filled rooms that previously had been dry with water.

Both the tug and the American Challenger are owned by Ship International Inc., whose principal, Felix Vera, was not able to fund the salvage. It was also reported that Vera had contracted Covid-19, had been intubated and was currently in an induced coma