Tugs Test Towing of Giant Ship to Protect the Bay

Jul 1, 2014
Deb Self
by Deb Self

What happens when the engines of a large ship in San Francisco Bay suddenly lose power?  The pilot loses the ability to steer the ship or stop it from drifting.

A dramatic rise in such incidents began in 2009, when a California law to help reduce global climate change went into effect. Ships are now required to use less-polluting diesel fuel when in state waters, including the Bay, instead of the heavier bunker fuel that powers these ships across oceans. Using diesel reduces greenhouse gases and air pollution. But because large ship engines weren’t designed for diesel, some have unexpectedly shut down in precarious situations.

One oil tanker that lost power came within 15 feet of the Marin Headlands before being surrounded by rescue tugs and guided safely under the Golden Gate Bridge. Other ships have lost power near the Bay Bridge, threatening to cause an oil spill into Bay waters. With larger and larger ships entering the Bay, our coastlines and wildlife are at risk.

Thankfully, the Bay has a large number of tugboats ready to respond. To help protect the Bay and the coastline, the San Francisco Harbor Safety Committee (of which I’m a member) has new emergency response procedures for tug companies. I recently took part in a drill to practice the new procedures, testing whether local tugboats can rescue a giant cargo ship that has lost power and safely tow the ship where it needs to go.

In the first-ever drill of its type in the United States, three tugboats towed one of the largest container ships that enters San Francisco Bay. The ship, the Centaurus, is owned by CMA CGM, which volunteered its use in this drill. Almost a quarter-mile long and weighing 120,000 tons, the Centaurus was ready to depart from the Port of Oakland stacked with 11,000 full cargo containers. The towing test began when the pilot drove the Centaurus to the middle of the Bay, then put the engines in standby mode.

Three tugs from local towing companies, working singly and in pairs, successfully towed the ship, reaching speeds up to six knots (about seven miles per hour). They also succeeded in turning it around in the Bay. When the drill was finished, the Centaurus re-powered its engines and headed out the Golden Gate on its way to Russia.

This towing drill was a joint effort by the San Francisco Harbor Safety Committee, U.S. Coast Guard and the container shipping industry. All of us share the goal of preventing another disaster like the oil spill that occurred in 2007, when the container ship Cosco Busan hit the Bay Bridge in heavy fog. That crash ripped open two of that ship’s fuel tanks and poured more than 54,000 gallons of heavy bunker fuel into the Bay. Over 6,000 birds were killed and more were coated with oil. A suffocating oil ring contaminated the shorelines of the East Bay, Richardson Bay, Angel Island and Alcatraz.

The 2007 oil spill was caused by pilot error, not by the Cosco Busan losing engine power. But a ship losing power could cause comparable damage. Now, if the engines of a large ship do suddenly lose power in San Francisco Bay, the Bay will be safer. Response agencies will be prepared for coordinated, effective action, and tug companies know how to deal with very large ships. Baykeeper will keep working for maximum prevention of oil spills in San Francisco Bay, and the best achievable cleanup response if a spill occurs.

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