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Fuel barge towed after 'sleepless night' in rough B.C. seas

Coast Guard escorts four-million-litre-full fuel barge to shelter—after two tug crew members spend night aboard floundering cargo with 'survival equipment.'

Rocks south of Goose Island in B.C.'s Hecate Strait appear in a 2016 aerial photograph. In the background, beyond the pictured rocks, is where a fuel barge became detached from the Alaska-bound Jake Shearer tugboat overnight Nov. 26, 2017 before being towed to safety.

Courtesy Keith Holmes/Hakai Institute

Rocks south of Goose Island in B.C.'s Hecate Strait appear in a 2016 aerial photograph. In the background, beyond the pictured rocks, is where a fuel barge became detached from the Alaska-bound Jake Shearer tugboat overnight Nov. 26, 2017 before being towed to safety.

Canada's Coast Guard escorted a floundering fuel barge to shelter Monday afternoon in B.C.'s Hecate Strait, after two crew members of the vessel's tugboat were forced to climb aboard and stay on their cargo overnight in rough waters.

The U.S.-owned barge — carrying 3.5-million litres of diesel and 500,000 litres gasoline to Alaska, B.C. stated — detached from its tugboat Sunday afternoon amidst heavy winds and waves not far from where a similar vessel sunk and leaked oil a year ago near Bella Bella.

By 9 a.m. Monday, another commercial tug had arrived and hooked up a tow rope, according to Emergency Management B.C.

"It's under tow," said Lt. Navy Melissa Kai, of the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre Victoria, in a phone interview Monday afternoon. "They're headed north to Milbanke Sound; the area was chosen because it's more sheltered waters."

Amidst heavy winds and waves overnight Sunday, those near B.C.'s latest shipping emergency spent the night anxious for its resolution, including some residents of nearby Heiltsuk Nation listening by VHF radio.

"It was a sleepless night," said Heiltsuk hereditary chief Harvey Humchitt in a statement, "knowing that the fate of our waters relied on the strength of just a couple of anchor lines holding the barge in place."

And there was also likely little sleep for two crew members forced to leap between detached vessels in reported 10-metre swell to drop anchor and wait aboard overnight for towing help.

"It was a bit rougher," Lt. Kai said. "They stayed with the barge overnight … and were able to drop the anchor on the barge relatively quickly that kept her about a mile off the coast."

According to Emergency Management B.C., the Jake Shearer tugboat crew had to remain aboard "as they are required for the tow line hook up and anchor recovery," but despite their quarters on the tug had "shelter, food and necessary survival equipment" on the barge.

According to GPS ship-tracking website Marine Traffic, the tugboat maintained its average speed most of the weekend until around 3 p.m. Sunday — when its speed dropped suddenly to a near-stop, then oscillated for nearly four hours just southwest of Gosling Rocks.

Kai said after receiving a distress call, the Coast Guard dispatched two vessels "immediately and they came as fast as they possibly could," but did not provide an arrival time. However, the province's Spill Response Twitter account reported them on scene by 8:30 p.m.

And though Emergency Management B.C. stated there were "No reports of spilled product at this time," the incident was listed on B.C.'s "spills and environmental emergencies, spill incidents" website — with the heading "potential."

The tug and barge are owned by U.S.-based Harley Marine Services, which B.C. reported sent a second tug up from the U.S. to help. Nine agencies in total were involved in responding to the emergency, including Heiltsuk Nation, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, B.C.'s environment ministry, and the privately owned Western Canada Marine Response Corporation.

It's not the first such incident off B.C. waters in recent years, after a string of distress calls raised questions about Canada's claims to a "world class" protection of its West Coast. A Russian ship drifted powerless off Haida Gwai in October 2014, raising fears of a catastrophic oil spill.

And last year, a series of incidents near Bella Bella saw the ATB tugboat Nathan E. Stewart sink and leak oil for months, to the alarm and outrage of Heiltsuk First Nation, followed by another vessel in the same waters shortly after.

“This is just one more reminder," added Humchitt, "of why Indigenous first responders should be involved in marine response decision-making right from the start.”

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