NEAH BAY (Dec. 23,2007) — Ninety mile per hour winds were blasting through the Strait of Juan de Fuca on the morning of Dec. 3 while the cargo ship Kauai – guided only by emergency steering – drifted toward possible grounding near Cape Flattery. A mayday call hustled the rescue tug Gladiator to action from its station in Neah Bay.

“Nobody wants to expose their crew and boat to conditions like that, but that’s our job and we go,” said Gladiator Captain Ron Palmer. Forty foot waves had smashed windows in the wheelhouse of the 720-foot, Matson-owned Kauai, shorting out all the ship’s electronics.

“Visibility was less than a quarter mile and there was other ship traffic in the area,” said Palmer, a 30-year towing vessel veteran who has worked for Crowley Inc., the tug’s owner, for seven years. The Gladiator became the eyes and ears for the ailing ship in the whiteout conditions, escorting it to a rendezvous with another tug near Port Angles that eventually guided it to a Puget Sound port for repairs.

“Saving the Kauai has already paid for the tug program many times over if you use the example of the non-tanker ship, New Carissa, and how much that cost to clean up,” said Palmer. The New Carissa ran aground near Coos Bay, Oregon in 1999, spilling an estimated 100,000 gallons of fuel oil.”It’s so much cheaper to prevent it in the first place,” said Palmer.

The Makah Tribe knows prevention is the answer. “More than 8,000 ships a year come through the Strait of Juan de Fuca,” said Micah McCarty, tribal council member for the Makah Tribe. “It’s not just the oil tankers that threaten our resources. All the most recent spills have been non-tanker ships, including the 58,000-gallon San Francisco Bay spill.”


Currently, owners of oil tankers pay into a fund that helps provide the rescue tug in Neah Bay during the winter months at a cost of $9,000 a day. This year, because of increasing fuel cost, the tug will depart in March instead of May.

“We need this tug here year-round. An accident can happen at any time, and the amount of ship traffic through here just continues to increase,” said McCarty. “Oil shipments to the Port of Vancouver, British Columbia alone have gone up nearly a million tons five years. All that vessel traffic is passing through the Strait of Juan de Fuca.”

Since 1999, the tugs stationed at Neah Bay have made 36 rescues, including one two weeks after the Kauai in similar, but less dire conditions and hauling 2.5 million gallons of diesel and gasoline.

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For more information, contact: Ben Johnson, Makah tribal council, (360)645-3234; Micah McCarty, Makah tribal council, (360) 645-3230; Debbie Preston, coastal information officer, Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, (360) 374-5501, dpreston@nwifc.org