October 10, 2013 | XLIII 39

Tender Neptune sinks in harbor

A private salvage crew that included frogmen on Wednesday used 24 inflatable “lift bags” to right and begin to refloat the 76-foot commercial fishing tender Neptune that sank early Saturday while tied up in the Small Boat Harbor.

Floating the vessel was expected to take at least another day.

“The process is nothing unusual. It’s just that the boat is a little older and more fragile. We’re trying to pick it up from a lot of different points,” said John Gitkov, owner of Southeast Alaska Lighterage of Juneau. Five sets of chains were fixed at intervals around the vessel’s hull, with lift bags attached.

The wooden-hulled vessel owned by Don Axelson was under contract to Ocean Beauty Seafoods during this year’s salmon season. It’s believed to have been built in the 1930s and has hauled fish here since at least the 1970s, area fishermen said. Axelson, who has been with the vessel for decades, did not return a phone message left for him Wednesday.

The U.S. Coast Guard will investigate the sinking and determine the probable cause of the accident, said Lt. Ryan Erickson, chief of incident management for the Corps out of its Juneau office.

Axelson hired Southeast Alaska Lighterage. Besides the salvage of the vessel, Axelson will be liable for the cost of the spill cleanup, Lt. Erickson said.

On Wednesday, as air was pumped into the lift bags, antennas and radar equipment rose above the water surface. Crews with pike poles and a line tethered to a skiff were used to push and pull the rising vessel away from the harbor’s outermost float.

Although air was being pumped into the lift bags below, adding buoyancy, the rise of the vessel was barely discernible. “It’s a heavy, wooden boat, so it’s going to be a slow process,” said the Coast Guard’s Erickson. “Also, you don’t want to shoot the boat up. You want a controlled raise.”

The salvage crew was planning to make the vessel just buoyant enough to be towed to a shallow spot on the inside of the harbor breakwater where it will sit above the waterline at low tide. Then, the water remaining inside the vessel was to be pumped out.

Coast Guard officials estimated that 25-50 gallons of diesel fuel and hydraulic oil spilled from the vessel, but others said the amount may have been as much as 10 times that amount. The vessel carried as much as 2,000 gallons of fuel when it went down. The harbor was cordoned off with containment boom at press time.

Despite a quick response by Haines Borough officials, including a free dive into icy water by harbormaster Phil Benner to plug an open fuel tank vent with a wooden plug, fuel escaped the harbor.

“There was a whole line of it going by. It was along the whole shoreline. You could just smell it. You could taste it in your mouth,” said Front Street resident Sonny Williams. Officials with the Coast Guard and regional officials from SEAPRO, an industry-based, oil-spill response provider, arrived on the scene Saturday.

SEAPRO had 10 workers on site Wednesday, monitoring for leakage following an earlier cleanup and containment effort that filled 24, 50-gallon barrels of oil, contaminated water and used sorbent pads. Containment efforts started as Neptune started slipping beneath the surface at about 1 a.m. Saturday.

Crewmen on the Neptune notified city police the vessel was sinking at 1:09 a.m. Saturday. Two individuals were aboard at the time, according to Benner, who was on site at about 1:15 a.m. By the time he and staffer Mark Allen arrived, the vessel’s superstructure and back deck were underwater. “There was very little we could do,” Benner said.

“At 1:45 a.m., the boat started listing and we had to cut it loose from the dock,” Benner said. It eventually came to rest on the harbor floor. By about 2:15 a.m., crews had containment boon stretched across the harbor’s mouth and by 4 a.m., the entire harbor was cordoned off from the rest of Lynn Canal. Early-morning responders included SEAPRO representatives Fred Gray and Mike Denker of Haines fuel supplier Delta Western.

“Luckily what happened was, once it got light and we could see what was going on and it became low tide, we could see where some of the fuel was leaking out of the fuel vents. I got into the water and closed up one of the fuel vents but there was still some leakage,” Benner said.

Using epoxy, diver Norman Hughes of Haines plugged one-inch vents leading to two fuel tanks Saturday. “There may have still been some dribbling, but I didn’t see any more fuel bubbling up as it was,” Hughes said this week.

The Neptune’s crew also had made an attempt to plug the vents and save the vessel before they got off it, Benner said.

George Mahoney, operations manager for SEAPRO, said raising a vessel like the Neptune often raises the possibility of spilling more fuel. Mahoney said spill responders attempted to use an oil skimmer to glean oil off the water, but that method was ineffective due to the relatively small size of the spill and the fact that fuel was already breaking up in the water by the time that method was attempted. “It wasn’t enough of a persistent product to be skimmed.”

Mahoney said the spill response appeared to be routine. “We lose a few of these classic, wooden boats every year. It’s sad to say. Fortunately, this one can be recovered,” he said.

The spill complicated Sunday’s commercial fishing opening, requiring vessels departing the harbor to be sprayed down using a hot water pressure wash. Absorbent pads and boom used during the incident came from equipment stored in Haines to be used in the event of such emergencies. Locally-maintained spill response equipment, including two barges, were stationed here in the wake of laws resulting from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.