Near-shipwreck is a taste of the future

Unlike this latest high adventure, help was within easy reach in 1938.

Well, we got away with it. This time. But it has happened before, with worse consequences, and it will happen again with far greater consequences. It’s like waiting for the Big One. We know it’s not a matter of if but when…

I’m referring, of course, to the near-miss between pristine Haida Gwaii and the Russian cargo ship. A fortuitous mix of wind and tide played as instrumental a role as the heroic crew of the CCGS Gordon Reid in halting its drift towards the shore until a tug could arrive from Prince Rupert.

This latest incident is hardly surprising when the southwestern shore of Vancouver Island was once known world-wide as the Graveyard of the Pacific, and a wreck for every mile. With hundreds of B.C. shipwrecks to choose from, I’ll just recite two involving oil spills.

In May 1938 the Union Oil Co.’s tanker Santa Maria cleared Vancouver after (happily) discharging her cargo of oil at Vancouver. San Pedro-bound and riding high in the water, she made it as far as Victoria’s waterfront where 80 kmph winds roaring in from Juan de Fuca Strait buffeted her towards shore. Upon striking and holding on Glimpse Reef, her hull was punctured in several places, her forward section flooded and it was feared that she’d be swung about by the winds on a falling tide, pull free – and sink.

Unlike this week’s high adventure, help was within easy reach in 1938, Victoria being the home of the S.S. Salvage King, one of the largest and best equipped salvage tugs in the world with a trained crew to match. They were quickly on the scene and began to lighten her by pumping her fuel oil over the side. With admirable dispatch they saved the Santa Maria to sail again. Too bad for the wildlife that oil slicks were a cost of doing business in those days.

In January 1973 it was Alert Bay’s turn to have a near-death experience when the freighter Irish Stardust spilled more than 100,000 gallons of thick bunker fuel oil in Johnstone Strait that fouled beaches with gooey black scum for 40 miles. Alert Bay responded with an army of adults and school children armed with shovels and rakes and Capt. James Caird was charged with failing to report by radio that his ship was trailing oil after striking a rock in Blackfish Sound while bound for Kitimat and Japan with a load of paper products. By nightfall, the slick was drifting toward Kelsey Bay, 50 miles south of Alert Bay.

Fortunately, Vancouver Island was spared by strong westerly winds that blew the slick towards Alert Bay and adjacent islands. Angered by reports of be-fouled waterfowl, the environmentalists of the day warned that the Irish Stardust could be a grim omen of the future "once 200,000-ton American supertankers begin carrying oil from Alaska to Washington State".

In 1973, provincial politician David Anderson was our foremost environmental champion; he described the Alert Bay spill as "a fraction of one per cent" of what could be expected if a supertanker had a similar mishap. No matter how good the ships and how well-trained the crews, he was convinced, accidents were to be expected. An unnamed Transport Ministry spokesman put it more bluntly: "…Had this been a 200,000-ton supertanker, we’d be wasting our time even talking about it."

Small as it was, the Irish Mist spill became B.C.’s worst to that date when the thick bunker oil was widely dispersed by gale-force winds and that which came ashore at Alert Bay was as much as four inches thick. After a brief delay that drew criticism of its readiness to deal with catastrophic emergencies, the federal government responded with two coast guard vessels, a helicopter and "every available man and piece of equipment," backed up by an offer by the State of Washington to borrow its oil spill cleanup equipment.

In light of this week’s incident off Haida Gwaii and of the potential for disaster posed by the increased tanker traffic that will result if the Albert-B.C. oil pipeline projects are built, these comments from The Daily Colonist, Jan. 27, 1973 still resonate: "The Alert Bay mishap has demonstrated pretty effectively that much remains to be done by the federal authority not only to provide regulations to prevent a recurrence but to make available the organization and equipment required to meet such emergencies. And this without delay."

So here we are 40 years later, already dealing with more and larger supertankers and facing the prospect of doubling the increased traffic and the risks. Are we ready?