Speaking just a day before an Exxon oil tanker ran aground south of Valdez nine days ago, an Alaska oil tanker pilot described his job as an intense "half art, half science" effort to avoid catastrophe."You've got to always be on your toes," said Michael O'Hara, a harbor pilot in Valdez and other southern Alaska ports. "If there were an oil spill due to a collision or a grounding in Prince William Sound, it would be just terrible. We all know what the stakes are.
"No mistakes," he said emphatically. "A mistake ends your career."
But for reasons not yet clear, a mistake just that terrible was made not by an Alaska harbor pilot, but by an Exxon oil tanker captain who lives in New York.
In the early morning of Good Friday, the Exxon Valdez departing Valdez with 1.2 million barrels of Alaska crude oil, bound for Long Beach, Calif. drove into a spine of rock called Bligh Reef, spilling a fifth of its cargo into Prince William Sound. The oil has since fouled hundreds of square miles of one of the richest marine environments in the world.
called Bligh Reef, spilling a fifth of its cargo into Prince William Sound. The oil has since fouled hundreds of square miles of one of the richest marine environments in the world.
State and federal officials are still investigating the accident. They've yet to learn the complete sequence of events. They do know, however, how the voyage of the Exxon Valdez began.
As required by federal and state regulations, a certified harbor pilot in this case, Ed Murphy of Homer boarded the Exxon Valdez at dockside the night of its departure and supervised its immediate journey from the terminal.
Murphy piloted the 987footlong tanker through the tightest places near port, including the half mile wide Valdez Narrows. He remained on board until the tanker reached Rocky Point, 17 miles out where the responsibility of the harbor pilots ends. There, in the relatively wide open spaces at the head of the sound, Murphy boarded a small speedboat and returned home.
From that moment on, the ship's captain Joseph Hazelwood, 42, of Huntington, N.Y. had sole authority to pilot the Exxon Valdez through the Sound to open sea. No one else on board had the necessary certification.
And yet federal investigators now say that Hazelwood relinquished his post early on to Third Mate Gregory Cousins, the tanker's watch officer. About the same time, the Exxon Valdez requested Coast Guard permission to leave the outbound shipping lane to avoid icebergs calving off Columbia Glacier. Permission was granted.
But the Exxon Valdez continued off course, crossing the inbound shipping lane in a collision course with Bligh Reef, a mile to the east. When the tanker first glanced off the rocks shortly before midnight, the only qualified pilot on board Hazelwood was below in his cabin. Nine minutes later, the Exxon Valdez ran firmly aground.
In the turmoil that followed, Hazelwood has declined to publicly discuss the accident, on the advice of his attorney. But federal investigators now say the ship's captain was legally drunk when alcohol tests were finally conducted nine hours after the Exxon Valdez ran aground.
Other tanker pilots based in Alaska also have been reluctant to talk about the accident, even though they weren't involved. But O'Hara, who lives near Palmer, had just been interviewed prior to the accident about his job as a harbor pilot, managing the oilladen ships that come and go at Valdez.
"Every moment is critical," O'Hara said.
Michael O'Hara's job begins when the empty tankers draw near the Port of Valdez. Without the weight of the oil, he says, the big ships are prey to wind that can drive them side to side like a sailboat.
"If a ship is real light, the horsepower of the wind is greater than the horsepower of the ship."
The pilot must fight this obstacle by loading water into the empty tanks as ballast. Even so, a strong head wind can mean revving up the engines to full speed just to maintain a slow pace.
O'Hara usually boards the tankers about 17 miles out, at Rocky Point. Once on board, he guides them through the Valdez Narrows to the terminal. It's a routine yet exacting procedure one that Alaska harbor pilots have completed more than 17,000 times without a serious oil spill.
But sometimes nature makes the job difficult.
During Alaska's record cold spell last January, a 90mph wind painted the decks of a tanker O'Hara was piloting with 2 inches of ice. Though O'Hara could still control the vessel, the crew could not venture topside to tie up mooring ropes and secure the tugboats.
"When you're on 2 inches of ice and the wind is blowing 80 knots, it's really hard to keep your cool," he says.
O'Hara steered the tanker into a protected area in the harbor a place where the mountains actually block the wind and his crew was able to scramble on deck and secure the docking lines in the lee.
Nearing port about a half mile out, O'Hara will ease an inbound tanker to a near halt, ordering the tugboats to "breast" it in. If the ship is moving too fast, it could tear the loading berth right from the terminal as though it were made of paper. Oil tankers must be "dead" in the water when they touch down.
"I consider these ships as eggs that are a quarter of a mile long," O'Hara says. "When I touch down on the fender, I don't disturb the snow."
At the Alyeska Pipeline Terminal, at the southern end of the transAlaska pipeline, the tankers take on their enormous weight of oil often more than a million barrels, weighing roughly 150,000 tons. Once full, the job of the portside pilot begins again.
During an outbound trip last February, O'Hara piloted the Arco Independence, the largest tanker that hauls Alaska oil to sea. The Independence stretches a fifth of a mile from stem to stern (some 200 feet longer than the Exxon Valdez) and 170 feet at the beam enough room to land a small plane. When fully loaded, it weighs 265,000 tons and draws 70 feet of water.
With that much weight, O'Hara says, the mere wake of the Independence if it were to pull out too fast could damage other tankers docked at the terminal.
"You never go (quickly) by another ship with a loaded 265 (thousandton tanker)," he says. "It pushes too much water."
Leaving port on that journey, a smaller tanker was moored just off the Independence's port beam. O'Hara held his speed at 2 knots, slower than a person walks. The Independence's wake did not disturb the other vessel.
Once beyond the terminal, the tanker pilot can increase his speed to 10 knots. But it takes the Independence two miles to reach that speed and as soon as it does, O'Hara tells his helmsman to throttle down to 6 knots. Dead ahead is the Valdez Narrows, a three mile long channel only a half mile wide.
When the Alaska pipeline was first proposed, environmentalists argued that the narrows presented an impossible obstacle to navigation. In computer tests, pilots repeatedly cracked up their imaginary ships on Middle Rock, which (positioned in the middle) has the effect of cutting the tankers' channel clearance by more than half.
Yet in 11 years, the primarily Alaskabased cadre of harbor pilots has had few problems threading the narrows. Traffic in the channel is monitored with radar by the Coast Guard, which limits the narrows to oneway travel.
Once outside, the oil tanker enters Prince William Sound proper and the pilot can throttle up. Coast Guard regulations require the specially certified harbor pilot to remain on board as far as Rocky Point, 17 miles from the port of Valdez. There the pilot climbs down a ladder into a speedboat and returns home.
From Rocky Point on, outbound oil tankers usually traverse Prince William Sound under the guidance of the ships' captains themselves.
Looming several miles off the starboard bow is Columbia Glacier, dropping icebergs into the sea. Those icebergs can float into the shipping lanes, presenting a navigational hazard to the tankers. But the larger ones seldom do.
According to John Denham, an expert in marine accidents who serves as director of continuing education at the California Maritime Academy, inexperienced pilots sometimes overreact to icebergs.
"Every man who goes to sea knows what happened to the Titanic," Denham says. "The mind's eye tells you that there's this massive thing under water. . . . Inexperienced pilots have a tendency to overclear that thing."
Turn too far away, Denham says, and the unrelenting momentum of the tanker makes turning back a long, slow process.
Having observed the waters near Columbia Glacier and Bligh Reef firsthand about four years ago, Denham advises that a tanker pilot who chooses to leave the shipping lanes there as the Exxon Valdez did continually gauge his position afterward by using all the resources at his command: radar pictures, depth finders, landmarks, speed calculations, records of previous trips.
Of course, Denham says, the pilot needs to know where his ship is in relation to Bligh Reef, the most obvious hazard in the upper Sound.
"The information's all there. . . . Now whether they use it or not is another thing."
Part of the pilot's problem is knowing how the tanker's mass affects its momentum. Many tankers weigh at least 200,000 tons. Once that much weight starts to move, it cannot stop quickly.
"If you stop the engines at 12 knots," O'Hara says, "it may take three miles to slow it down to 6 knots. They have a lot of momentum there, a lot of mass, so everything has to be done slowly."
It also requires a sense of the vessel, O'Hara says.
"It's more of a halfart, halfscience. You have to have some sort of a feel for the ship, and you have to know the numbers behind it."
Above all, Denham says, the pilot should never leave the bridge when navigational hazards are near. When he worked as a pilot in West Coast ports, Denham would time how long he could be away from the bridge to how long it could conceivably take for something to go wrong often just a matter of seconds.
To go to the bathroom, he says, he strictly allowed himself 45 seconds while navigating the inland waters of California. He always timed it with a stopwatch. Sometimes it required three trips back and forth between the bridge and the bathroom to relieve himself.
For 11 years, oil tankers have been piloted across Prince William Sound almost daily without mishap. They have made the trip in and out of Valdez in 90knot blizzards, in absolute whiteouts, in 30foot seas.
Until last week, no tanker had run aground or suffered a serious oil spill. It was a record that pilots in the 20member Southwest Alaska Pilots Association pointed to with pride as did the oil industry.
Until the grounding of the Exxon Valdez.
In one sense, it might be seen as ironic that the Exxon Valdez didn't crash during a storm, with its pilot stretched to the breaking point. It went aground on a flatcalm night in a season of perfect weather. It tore open its hull on a reef known by every mariner in Valdez, one signaled by a blinking buoy, miles outside the correct sea lane.
But John Denham of the California Marine Academy doesn't see it quite that way. Piloting through a calm can get pretty boring, he says.
"In fact, it's really boring. And when it gets boring, you have a tendency to get lax. . . . No other ship around? That's when it happens."
To his students, Denham likes to quote a standing order from a watch manual about the absolute need for vigilance.
"The role of the master is that you never let down that vigilance no matter how tired you are, no matter how grumpy you are," Denham says.
"You are the master. You are the one, single person who is totally in charge."
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