Absent oil threat, Challenger left on the rocks

03/17/2021

An old fishing vessel wrecked on a remote stretch of shoreline north of Dillon Beach has been abandoned indefinitely. Officials suspended their response to the American Challenger this week as the threat of an oil spill was abated and emergency funding dried up. Salvaging the vessel will depend on finding a multimillion-dollar funding source and creating a feasible plan to free the 90-foot boat from the rocky, high-energy tidal zone where it is grounded. 

Officials agreed at a townhall on Saturday that the abandoned vessel exposes a legal loophole that allows shipowners to sail without insurance, leading to marine waste that nobody has the responsibility or funding to deal with.

“This horrifies me to see this on our pristine coastline,” said Tom Cullen, the administrator of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response. “I can assure you that it is my singular passion to finally bring a solution forward that can prevent, address and respond to these kinds of horrific events.”

The initial eight-day response cost $1.5 million, and was paid out of two trust funds dedicated to responding to oil spills. The boat, whose hull was punctured after breaking free from its tugboat and drifting into rocks, had a capacity for 29,000 gallons of fuel. Light oil sheen was spotted in the immediate area, and responders were focused on preventing a larger spill.

Teams of marine surveyors arrived by helicopter to assess the vessel’s integrity and potential for a leak. They faced dangerous and deteriorating conditions: The boat was tilted 28 degrees to starboard, and water had flooded many of the rooms. The teams placed cameras in 13 of 17 tanks, finding only residual oil; the other four tanks on the starboard side couldn’t be reached. Crew members of the tugboat told responders that they sucked the tanks dry before setting sail, and no oil sheening was reported for three days. That information was enough for the Coast Guard to declare an end to the emergency oil spill response, and the project moved to monitoring the area and addressing the longer-term pollution threat.

Shoreline teams will no longer use sorbent pads to collect residual oil, and this week contractors are collecting over two miles of containment boom that was deployed in Tomales Bay in case of a larger spill. Surveyors with the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary will conduct extra beach watches to monitor the ongoing impacts of the grounding.

The 197-ton vessel faces an uncertain future. First, salvagers must determine if it can be removed from the rocks. Contractors are planning a survey of the ocean floor to see how the steel hull sits, so they can determine the best mechanism for freeing it. Once a plan is hatched, the agencies must secure funding. 

The marine sanctuary has some money set aside for restoration, but the costs are likely to be well over $1 million and will require contributions from local, state and federal sources, Greater Farallones superintendent Maria Brown said. Many unanswered questions remain. “What are the options for the removal? How can we remove a vessel that is offshore, on rocks, in an environment with lots of energy, lots of wave action? And from those options, what are the costs?” she said.

The marine sanctuary is especially concerned about the entanglement hazard posed by loose gear. The sanctuary is home to 25 endangered or threatened species, 26 marine mammal species and over a quarter-million breeding seabirds. It is possible that a salvage would concentrate only on the most hazardous parts of the vessel, Ms. Brown said.

The American Challenger was built in the 1970s and for decades was a part of a large fishing fleet off the coast of Washington. A few years ago, it was taken out of service and purchased by Ships International Inc., a company owned by Felix Vera that acquires old vessels for repurposing or scrap metal. The Challenger overstayed its welcome at several docks, and the Washington Department of Natural Resources declared it derelict and pushed for its removal.

Mr. Vera’s lawyer, Shawn Griggs, explained this week that Mr. Vera was hospitalized with a serious case of Covid-19 when the State of Washington and the Coast Guard issued a series of orders to move the boat. The Coast Guard would only approve a tow plan past customs in San Diego. “There was a very clear push to get the boat out of the country as quickly as possible,” Mr. Griggs said. “It didn’t matter that it was winter, when the ocean conditions aren’t as safe.”

About halfway through the journey, things got dicey. The tugboat lost power after a rope tangled in its propeller. Then the towline connecting the boats broke, and the Challenger drifted away as the tugboat anchored. A Coast Guard cutter arrived on the scene, but the commanding officer decided not to board the Challenger because it did not have an anchor, the weather and wave conditions were strong, and no lives were at risk. The vessel ran aground at 1 a.m. on March 6.

“We got to a point in this response, which we don’t get to a lot, where it just became too dangerous for us to have people aboard that vessel,” Coast Guard Captain Howard Wright said.

He added, “It is the public outrage over this that is going to get this over the finish line, and get that vessel removed.” 

Mr. Vera does not have the financial resources or insurance to pay for a response, according to his lawyer. His company has small margins, and the vessel was valued at around $10,000. “He was literally just trying to make a problem go away,” Mr. Griggs said. “You can’t pay what you don’t have, so how that shakes out, I’m not entirely sure.”

Mr. Cullen, a member of the workgroup for abandoned and derelict vessel s for Pacific states, is outraged. He said the American Challenger incident is the latest in a “not common, but unfortunately too common” occurrence of old boats littering the coast after something goes wrong. 

He is hopeful that the sight of the boat will galvanize support for a legislative solution, which he has pushed in briefings with elected officials. His workgroup has explored requiring insurance across state lines, mandating inspections whenever boats are sold, allowing public agencies to scrap a vessel themselves, and adding a secondary liability clause so a seller can’t walk away right after auctioning off a wreck for cheap. A larger fund for pollution cleanup is also needed, he said. 

Mr. Cullen’s anger was echoed by Richard James, an Inverness resident known for his efforts to keep plastic pollution out of Tomales Bay. He’s cleaned up after several old boats, too. “I’m tired of picking up these messes, and this is completely unacceptable,” he said.