Engine trouble brings TOTE ship into bay

It was probably the shortest job in the business. Marine pilot Captain Donal Ryan took the M/V Midnight Sun out of its anchorage off the tip of the Homer Spit to the pilot station near the green navigational buoy. From getting out of his car in the parking lot near the Salty Dawg to getting back in, the whole operation took only an hour. Ryan boarded the 839-foot vessel and ascended 10 flights of stairs to the bridge. 

The Coast Guard had ordered the Midnight Sun into Kachemak Bay on the evening of Saturday, Jan. 17, after the vessel lost power in Kennedy Entrance, about five miles southwest of Cape Elizabeth, according to the Marine Exchange of Alaska’s vessel tracking system. All four of the ship’s engines shut down near the final leg of its transit from Tacoma to Anchorage. 

 The Coast Guard and vessel owner Totem Ocean Trailer Express (TOTE) called upon the M/V Bob Franco, a tug that assists tankers docking at the Tesoro refinery, to transit directly to the Midnight Sun. A closer tug assisting a fuel barge at Homer’s Deep Water Dock couldn’t get clearance from its owners in time to give aid. The Coast Guard sent a C-130 aircraft to Homer to deliver an emergency towing system that could be lowered to the ship by helicopter, if needed, and positioned a Jayhawk helicopter in Homer from the Kodiak airbase. 

 By the time the Bob Franco arrived about three hours later, the Midnight Sun was under partial power. The tug escorted the vessel, which had a crew of about 30, into Kachemak Bay late Saturday night where it spent Sunday looming over the Spit. 

 The Midnight Sun and its sister ship, the M/V North Star, make twice weekly runs between Tacoma and Anchorage. These ships are “roll-on/roll-off” (or “ro-ro”) vessels, which means that all cargo is driven on as cars, trailers, vans or flatbeds. More than twice the length of a football field and a little less wide, the Midnight Sun can accommodate 600 40-foot trailers as well as 220 cars. 

You touch things TOTE ships have brought to Alaska everyday. Think bananas, diapers, lumber, snow machines. Ninety percent of the goods used in Alaska west of Cordova arrives in Anchorage by ship. With the number of sailings these vessels do, and the nasty conditions they face in the Gulf of Alaska — particularly in winter — it’s amazing these ships have a 98 percent on-time record. This recent hitch, which delayed cargo availability at the Port of Anchorage for 36 hours, put a wrinkle in that.  

TOTE’s ro-ro ships are designed for the kind of extreme sea conditions they face in Alaska, including wind gusts up to 100 knots, 60-foot seas, 6-7 knot tidal currents, a 35-foot tidal exchange, and bruising sea ice. The Midnight Sun’s distinctive white forecastle — shaped like the back of a whale — is contoured to shed seas. 

 But despite heavy-duty engineering, things can go wrong. Preliminary reports indicate that a computer glitch may have caused the engines to go down. Anytime a vessel loses power is a serious incident — life and environment can be at risk. 

Remember the Malaysian freighter M/V Selendang Ayu, which lost propulsion off the Aleutians in heavy seas in December 2004. The ship grounded, broke in two, and spilled some half million gallons of fuel. Six crew members died when a Coast Guard rescue helicopter crashed into the waves. 

 The Midnight Sun’s fuel tanks have a capacity of 539,000 gallons, and the ship was carrying 40,000 pounds of chlorine as well as untold other cargo. But conditions were lucky. The weather was fair. The seas were calm. All parties involved spoke English. 

These ships don’t normally call on Kachemak Bay. Unlike the tankers that slip in and out of the bay to pick up and drop off marine pilots, the Midnight Sun carries its own pilot for navigation in Cook Inlet. These company pilots, however, don’t hold an endorsement for Kachemak Bay, which is why, after Coast Guard, American Bureau of Shipping, and TOTE officials inspected the vessel, the Southwest Alaska Pilots Association dispatched Captain Ryan to navigate the ship out of the bay. 

By daylight on Sunday morning, the ship was out of sight, resuming its scheduling of feeding and supplying Alaska.  

 Author of “Tide, Feather, Snow: A Life in Alaska,” Miranda Weiss is a writer in Homer.