Ship Almost Grounded At Port Angeles

Just one day after a 600-foot freighter washed up on the beach and triggered an environmental crisis at Coos Bay, Ore., an even larger ship came within a few yards of doing the same at Port Angeles.

The APL Japan, a 900-foot container ship carrying a full load of cargo and an estimated 500,000 gallons of fuel, lost power just offshore Friday morning.

Harry Hutchins, director of the Puget Sound Steamship Operators Association, said crews of two nearby tugboats that rushed to the aid of the drifting vessel averted an environmental catastrophe.

The near-grounding occurred as Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Bremerton, was announcing a rescue tug will be temporarily stationed at Neah Bay beginning next month, an experiment designed to prevent tankers and other ships from going aground on the environmentally sensitive coast of the Olympic Peninsula.

That tug would have been too far from either of last week's incidents to prevent a spill, Hutchins said, but Friday's rescue demonstrates the effectiveness of an alternative vessel-rescue system promoted by the local maritime industry.

According to Hutchins, the APL Japan was under control of a Puget Sound pilot and was approaching Port Angeles when it suddenly lost power about 10:30 a.m. The pilot was able to kick the bow around away from shore, but the ship was adrift and in danger of running aground.

The Coast Guard had no boat capable of taking the enormous freighter in tow, but contacted the crew of the Richard M., a small tug moored in Port Angeles. The Richard M. lacked the power to rescue the ship, but contacted the crew of the larger tug, Sea Viking, which was towing a barge nearby in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

The Richard M. rushed into the strait and took the barge, freeing the Sea Viking to steam to the drifting freighter. It towed the APL Japan within a few hundred yards of shore.

The freighter's problem was traced to a faulty valve and repaired, Hutchins said.

"All this happened in about 35 minutes. Otherwise, we could've had a real mess on our hands."