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Major-League Mariners

10/17/2006

In Seattle, some mariners work inside a baseball stadium. But there's also a small band of real mariners who specialize in guiding stadium-sized ships through Puget Sound. Narrow shipping lanes and fast currents demand an expert hand at the wheel to keep the sound safe from a major oil spill. For part two of our series on the tidal currents of Puget Sound, producer John Ryan takes us on a midnight run on a giant oil tanker.

TRANSCRIPT

ON THE DECK OF A TANKER CALLED THE BRITISH OAK, A HUGE NO SMOKING SIGN LOOMS OVER A MAZE OF PIPES AND VALVES. WHEN YOU'RE SITTING ON TOP OF A HUNDRED THOUSAND TONS OF CRUDE OIL FROM THE PERSIAN GULF, YOU TAKE FIRE SAFETY VERY SERIOUSLY. PASSENGERS CLIMBING ABOARD EVEN HAVE TO TURN OFF THEIR ELECTRONIC DEVICES TO MAKE SURE A SPARK DOESN'T IGNITE ANY STRAY PETROLEUM FUMES.

TONIGHT, THE BP OIL TANKER IS ON ITS WAY TO THE CHERRY POINT REFINERY, NORTH OF BELLINGHAM. THE SEA IS CALM AND THE SKY FULL OF STARS. THE VIEW FROM THE PILOT HOUSE, 80 FEET ABOVE PUGET SOUND, IS HARD TO BEAT.

HANNIGAN: "You're seeing the lights of Orcas Island. See the red lights up there, those are the radio towers on top of Mt. Constitution on Orcas Island, and we're actually heading for those right now."

PAT HANNIGAN IS ONE OF ABOUT 50 PUGET SOUND PILOTS. BY LAW, THESE EXPERT SKIPPERS CLIMB ABOARD THE BIGGEST OCEANGOING SHIPS OFF PORT ANGELES AND PILOT THEM TO HARBORS IN PUGET SOUND. THEY'RE CONSIDERED THE PINNACLE OF THE PROFESSION, THE MAJOR-LEAGUE MARINERS. AS ONE PART OF THEIR PILOT EXAM, THEY HAVE TO DRAW A NAUTICAL CHART OF ANY PART OF PUGET SOUND FROM MEMORY.

HANNIGAN: "When a pilot's made 500 or 1,000 trips of this area, he can look out there and see almost if there's one light out of position and sure as heck it'll be a fishing boat or something that shouldn't be there and you're going to have to avoid. That's the kind of thing a pilot gets paid to know."

TAKING A SHIP THROUGH THESE WATERS DEMANDS SUCH CONCENTRATION THAT PILOTS CAN'T BE INTERVIEWED WHILE THEY'RE WORKING. SO PAT HANNIGAN CAME ALONG TO ANSWER MY QUESTIONS WHILE ANOTHER PILOT TAKES THE HELM. THAT PILOT IS DAN SHAFFER. HE GUIDES THE SHIP THROUGH ROSARIO STRAIT AND UP TO CHERRY POINT. IN METICULOUS DETAIL, SHAFFER REVIEWS THE CONDITION OF THE SHIP AND OF THE SEA WITH THE SHIP'S CAPTAIN.

SHAFFER: "It will be ebbing until midnight, it's just a very small ebb, and then if it was a big flood we'd have to turn and make a port landing, but--"

MUTIAR: "So you prefer to go starboard."

SHAFFER: "I think starboard would be best."

THEY BOTH KNOW THAT MISTAKES ON AN OIL TANKER CAN HAVE DEVASTATING CONSEQUENCES.

MUTIAR: "My name is Captain Mutiar Inderjit Singh, I belong to India. We are carrying Arabian crude. These are the most dangerous vessels -- our principles are very simple, no accidents, no injuries and no damage to environment."

THE BRIDGE OF A TANKER CAN BE CHAOTIC, WITH SEVERAL RADIO CHANNELS BLARING AT ONCE. PAT HANNIGAN SAYS COMMUNICATING WITH FISHING BOATS, THE COAST GUARD, AND THE ENGINE ROOM ALL AT ONCE IS HARD ENOUGH FOR A LOCAL.

HANNIGAN: "A foreign-flag crew that barely understands English would be seriously and dangerously disadvantaged. Ship owners seek out crew members from the poor countries, they're very concerned with cost, and we're here to make sure the state's interests are protected."

CAPTAIN MUTIAR SAYS HIS INDIAN CREW IS GLAD WHEN A PUGET SOUND PILOT CLIMBS ABOARD.

MUTIAR: "He comes as a very valuable guest, an advisor, because he knows his land better than us."

THIS TANKER IS NEARLY THREE FOOTBALL FIELDS LONG, AND IT'S MOSTLY UNDERWATER, LIKE AN ICEBERG. STOPPING DISTANCE? UP TO TWO MILES. OIL TANKERS ARE THE DEEPEST AND SLOWEST OF THE BIG SHIPS. THAT MEANS CURRENTS CAN PUSH THEM OFF-COURSE MORE EASILY THAN FASTER VESSELS. HERE'S PAT HANNIGAN AS WE MOTOR PAST LUMMI ISLAND.

HANNIGAN: "On a big flood tide, the current will push the ship sideways to the northeast. It can be quite amazing the velocity of the current here on a big tide. So just in the space of 8 miles, you experience not only three or four different velocities of the current, but you can experience three or four different directions of the current."

TWO CENTURIES AGO, THE EXPLORER GEORGE VANCOUVER COMPLAINED OF THE "VERY UNPLEASANT NAVIGATION" IN OUR TURBULENT WATERS. DESPITE MODERN TECHNOLOGY, IT'S STILL NO CAKEWALK.

HANNIGAN: "You have to be able to use the current to your advantage, or all the horsepower in the world won't overcome it. That's why the pilots are always so concerned about what's the current doing."

SHOULD THE BRITISH OAK LOSE ITS HORSEPOWER, THERE IS A BACKUP PLAN. RIDING IN THE TANKER'S WAKE, JUST OFF THE STARBOARD SIDE, IS THE RESPONSE, AN ESCORT TUG.

HANNIGAN: "He's about 200 feet away, he's traveling at exactly our speed, and he has a heavy-duty line he's ready to send up to the ship at any moment."

HANNIGAN SAYS WITH ITS ESCORT TUGS AND PILOTS AND VERY DEEP WATERS, PUGET SOUND IS ONE OF THE SAFEST PLACES IN THE WORLD FOR SHIPPING OIL. BUT TUGS AND PILOTS DON'T JOIN INBOUND SHIPS UNTIL THEY PASS PORT ANGELES, ABOUT 70 MILES FROM THE START OF THE STRAIT OF JUAN DE FUCA. THE SHIPPING LANES OF THE STRAIT ARE WIDE AND DEEP, BUT SOME ENVIRONMENTALISTS SAY THE BUSY LANES ARE AN ACCIDENT WAITING TO HAPPEN. FRED FELLEMAN IS WITH THE GROUP OCEAN ADVOCATES. HE STANDS ON A BEACH IN SEATTLE AS SHIPS LARGE AND SMALL MOTOR IN THE DISTANCE.

FELLEMAN: "Vancouver is Canada's largest port, so the Strait of Juan de Fuca gets that combined traffic, making it among the busiest water bodies in North America."

PUGET SOUND ITSELF USED TO HAVE STRICTER PROTECTIONS, UNTIL THE SUPREME COURT STRUCK THEM DOWN SIX YEARS AGO. TODAY, ONLY ABOUT HALF OF THE TANKERS IN PUGET SOUND PARTICIPATE IN THE STATE'S VOLUNTARY TANKER-SAFETY PROGRAM. THE BRITISH OAK, RUN BY A SINGAPORE SHIPPING COMPANY, IS NOT AMONG THEM.

STILL, THE OIL INDUSTRY AND ITS CRITICS AGREE THAT THE SAFETY RECORD IN PUGET SOUND HAS GREATLY IMPROVED SINCE THE WAKEUP CALL OF THE EXXON VALDEZ OIL SPILL NEARLY 20 YEARS AGO.

IN AUGUST, BP HAD TO SHUT DOWN PART OF THE ALASKA PIPELINE AFTER LETTING CORROSION GO UNCHECKED FOR YEARS. ON BOARD THE BRITISH OAK, CRAIG LEE OF BP SAYS THATíS NOT SLOWING DOWN THE SHIPS COMING INTO THE COMPANYíS REFINERY AT CHERRY POINT.

LEE: "They havenít slowed delivery. Weíll get crude from other sources, whether itís Africa, or Persian Gulf, those barrels will be replaced."

WHEREVER OUR OIL COMES FROM, ENVIRONMENTALISTS SAY IT ALSO PUTS AN INCREASINGLY BUSY PUGET SOUND AT RISK. AS FOREIGN TRADE INCREASES, SO DO THE NUMBER AND SIZE OF PETROLEUM-FUELED SHIPS MOVING THROUGH THE SOUND. UNDER A SETTLEMENT REACHED WITH OCEAN ADVOCATES IN MAY, BP IS PAYING FOR A MILLION-DOLLAR STUDY ON WAYS TO BETTER PROTECT PUGET SOUND FROM THE OIL THAT TRAVELS ACROSS IT.

IíM JOHN RYAN, KUOW NEWS.

© Copyright 2006, KUOW

04.16.14

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