NEWS

Simushir under tow from Barbara Foss, en route to Prince Rupert for repairs

10/19/2014 01:29 EDT | Updated 12/19/2014 05:59 EST
A large American tug boat is pulling a disabled Russian cargo ship to a port on British Columbia's north coast, ending fears that the vessel, which lost power Thursday night, would drift ashore, hit rocks and spill hundreds of tons of fuel.

The Canadian Forces' Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Victoria said the tug Barbara Foss arrived Saturday evening at around 5:30 p.m. PT and secured a line to the Russian ship. Officials said Sunday morning the tow was going well.

"The American ocean-going tug... reached the stricken vessel, successfully took Simushir under tow and began heading in a northwesterly direction, keeping a safe distance from the west coastline of Haida Gwaii," a statement from Maritime Forces Pacific (MARPAC) read.

As of noon Sunday, the vessels were at the northwest end of Haida Gwaii and began heading east into the Dixon Entrance, MARPAC said.

- Google Maps: Dixon Entrance

- MORE | Barbara Foss arrives at Simushir, adrift off Haida Gwaii

- EARLIER | Fuel-laden Russian cargo ship under coast guard tow

Acting Sub.-Lt. Melissa Kia, speaking for the Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre, said the winds and seas have calmed significantly since Saturday.

Kia said the owners of the Russian vessel asked to have it taken to Prince Rupert, the nearest container ship port, which is 93 nautical miles, or 171 kilometres, away from where the tow operation began.

As of noon, the Barbara Foss and the Simushir were approximately 86 nautical miles from Prince Rupert and travelling at six knots.

"The vessels are expected to be in the vicinity of Prince Rupert early tomorrow morning, depending on weather conditions and assuming tow operations proceed well, as they had overnight," MARPAC said.

A spokeswoman with the U.S. company that owns the Barbara Foss tugboat told CBC News just before noon Sunday that the two vessels could be in port as early at 10 p.m. PT Sunday night.

The Canadian Coast Guard vessel Sir WilfridLaurier, the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Spar and the Canadian Coast Guard ship Gordon Reid have been stood down and are returning to regular duties, MARPAC officials said.

The RCAF Cormorant helicopter, RCAF Buffalo aircraft and the U.S. Coast Guard Jayhawk helicopter that were on standby at Sandspit airport have also returned to regular duties.

Power lost Thursday night

The Simushir lost power due to a mechanical failure late Thursday off Haida Gwaii, also known as the Queen Charlotte Islands, as it made its way from Everett in Washington state to Russia.

The Gordon Reid arrived on scene Friday night and started towing the disabled ship away from shore, but three attempts to keep a towline attached failed and the ship was adrift again for six hours Saturday daytime.

The 10 crew members aboard the Simushir were trying to repair the broken oil heater that has left the vessel disabled, Royal Canadian Navy Lt. Greg Menzies said.

'We might have averted catastrophe'

The president of the Council of the Haida Nation warned Friday that a storm coming into the area was expected to push the ship onto the rocky shore, but President Pete Lantin later said their worst fears had subsided.

"If the weather picks up it could compromise that, but as of right now there is a little sense of relief that we might have averted catastrophe here," Lantin said.

About 5,000 people live on the islands and fish for food nearby, Lantin said.

The fear of oil spills is especially acute in British Columbia, where residents remember the Exxon Valdez tanker ship disaster that struck Alaska's coastline in 1989. Such worries have fed fierce opposition — particularly from environmentalists and coastal First Nations — to a proposal to build a pipeline that would carry oil from Canada's Alberta oil sands to a terminal in Kitimat, British Columbia, for shipment to Asia.

Opponents say the proposed pipeline would bring about 220 large oil tankers a year to the province's coast.

The Simushir, which is about 135 metre long, was carrying a range of hydrocarbons, mining materials and other related chemicals. That included 400 tons of bunker oil and 50 tons of diesel. The vessel is not a tanker but rather a container ship. In comparison, the tanker Exxon Valdez, spilled 35,000 metric tons of oil.

A spokesman for Russian shipping firm SASCO, the owners of the vessel, said it is carrying 298 containers of mining equipment in addition to heavy bunker fuel as well as diesel oil for the voyage.

Officials said the injured captain was evacuated by helicopter Friday afternoon, but they were given no further medical details.

The Simushir is registered in Kholmsk, Russia, and owned by SASCO, also known as Sakhalin Shipping Company, according to the company's website. The SASCO website says the ship was built in the Netherlands in 1998.

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