Nearly three months have passed since the 78-foot fishing tender Lone Star capsized in the salmon-rich waters of the Igushik River in Southwest Alaska, and salvage crews are still struggling to lift the ship up out of the chilly waters. Extreme tides, currents and weather have hindered the operation, and now, crews are battling another environmental obstacle -- the river bottom that seems determined to hang on to the ship as crews try to yank it out.
Salvage crews on Monday tried to rip the vessel from the mud holding the ship in place on the river floor in a salvage operation that Coast Guard Commander Scott Johnson said has proven far more complex than most. Before lifting the vessel, crews will inject foam into the ship in hopes it will create buoyancy to counteract the mud's grip on the steel hull.
The Lone Star capsized early in the morning of June 30, when the changing tide reportedly swung the anchored ship into its anchor chain, which caught on the transducer and coolant lines, pulling them loose and creating a hole in the boat's hull.
Nearly three months later, the vessel is still lying on its side where it first went under. "We're all a little surprised," that the salvage operation has drawn out so long, Coast Guard spokesman Scott Eggert said.
After the vessel capsized, salvage operators Resolve Marine and Magone Marine -- two outfits that recently merged to form Resolve-Magone -- were sent in to extract the ship from its resting place. In July, crews worked to remove an estimated 14,000 gallons of diesel fuel, 150 gallons of lube oil, 150 gallons of hydraulic fluid and 250 gallons of gasoline petroleum from the ship.
After sucking most of the fuel and fluids from the ship, the salvage operators tried in August to pull it up using a crane attached to a barge, but suction from the river floor thwarted their plan.
"The mud is basically trying to pull down at the same time they're trying to lift up," Eggert said.
So the salvage crew went back to the drawing board. Now, a month later, a new plan has been devised and approved by the Coast Guard. Resolve-Magone will inject urethane foam into the rear compartments of the vessel, hoping to overcome some of the suction from the river floor.
The crew will also fill the front compartments with air, pushing out the river water, and maintaining air pressure to prevent water from rushing back into the ship. That should help relieve some of the extra weight in the vessel and help lift it.
Last week, a 140-foot barge from Alabama equipped with a 450-ton crane to lift the Lone Star arrived in Bristol Bay.
The barge will pull up alongside the ship, and divers will wrap chains beneath the capsized vessel. The crane atop the barge will reach to the far side of the sunken ship, while winches will reel in the chains on the side nearest the salvage barge. That should form a "cradle" around the vessel to pry the Lone Star from the mud, Johnson said.
Once the vessel is ripped from the river floor, Resolve-Magone will move it to shallow waters. There they will pump the remaining water from the ship, and remove the 35,000 pounds of salmon still onboard, which should take about a week.
"I'm confident (the new plan is) going to work," Johnson said. "We've completely vetted this salvage plan."
Alaska's extreme environment may still be a wild card, though. "That, you can't really predict," Johnson said.
Although the vessel is sitting in relatively shallow waters that fluctuate between five and 30 feet deep, depending on the tide, what at first glance appears to be a relatively simple salvage operation is a treacherous challenge.
"Normally with a salvage you have a danger to contend with -- cold water, extreme currents, extreme tides, remoteness of operation," salvage master Ray Fortin told Alaska Dispatch in July. "With this salvage operation, it pretty much covers all the angles."
The crew's divers are working blind, thanks to the silt-laden river waters that cut visibility to zero. River currents moving at up to 8 mph mean that dives must be planned around the tidal changes, as the river current slows and reverses. Once a diver goes under, he has only 90 minutes to work on the ship before the current becomes too strong. And the frigid waters mean that divers must wear hot suits that are connected to the barge and continually cycle hot water through the diving gear.
But the crews shrug off the environmental challenges in what for them is "just another day."