Coast Guard says damaged boat cannot be moved as salvage looms

BODEGA BAY — A desperate, weeklong effort to move the grounded Aleutian Storm from the surf at south Salmon Creek Beach concluded abruptly Friday with only one thing left to do: leave the boat where it is and hope salvage crews can take it apart before wave action does.

Listing toward the ocean and battered so repeatedly by waves that a large gash has appeared on its starboard side, in the wheelhouse and through the deck, the 57-ton fishing vessel is now so weighted down with water and sand, and its structural integrity so compromised, that federal officials determined it no longer could be moved.

“It’s unfortunate,” said Lt. Natasha Kenney, with the U.S. Coast Guard’s Sector San Francisco Incident Management Division. “We of course wanted to be able to get her out of the surf and try to rescue her. So definitely a sad day.”

The incident now shifts out of federal jurisdiction and becomes the responsibility of vessel Capt. Chris Fox, his insurers and their contractors to arrange for salvage operations under the oversight of California State Parks, which owns the beach.

But it was unclear how long that might take, and with powerful waves up to 25 feet high expected this weekend, it appeared unlikely operations could be underway immediately, increasing the risk the ocean could break the vessel apart.

“The weather tomorrow and Sunday — for that matter possibly even Monday — is going to be the biggest barrier to having a clear understanding of our planning efforts,” State Parks Sonoma-Mendocino District Superintendent Bill Maslach said. “We’re just trying to keep people safe around the boat and protect natural and cultural resources.”

The double-hulled, steel vessel has been pummeled by waves for a week, since its San Francisco-based Capt. Chris Fox ran aground with a catch of Dungeness crab on board en route to Bodega Harbor, to the south, late on the night of Feb. 9.

About three dozen fishermen from several California ports rallied around Fox and his crew Sunday and Monday, hoping to rig the 58-foot boat so it could be towed intact off the beach and back to open water via tugboat.

They came close, but the lines and rigging failed three times, exhausting Fox’s opportunity to save the boat and his livelihood.

The Coast Guard federalized the incident earlier this week and took charge, operating in unified command with State Parks, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, its Oil Spill Prevention and Recovery division and Sonoma County Emergency Management.

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But officials continued to struggle to find a solution as the vessel became increasingly settled several yards south from where it first came ashore. Friday’s operation had been viewed as a last chance to get it out of the pounding surf before rough weekend seas.

A long stretch of beach already was littered with debris and wreckage Friday, including bits of foam rubber, pieces of mesh, broken plastic items and large jagged pieces of wood and lumber torn from inside the cabins.

Much of it had been collected and piled on the beach by Friday or bagged in black trash bags that were set in clusters around the incident scene.

But there appeared to be no plan to move them elsewhere, despite waves expected to wash all the way up toward the dunes and beach grass this weekend, leaving two volunteers mapping the debris field to haul the bags themselves.

The vessel also still has fuel, though how much remains unclear. Fox told authorities he thought the vessel grounded with about 1,500 gallons of diesel aboard, though some has leaked from a compromised tank and crews managed to extract a small amount Tuesday.

The Coast Guard had hoped the rest might be removed as early as Friday and had planned an operation using heavy equipment, including a very large bulldozer, to drag the vessel up toward the dunes and out of the surf so crews could get to the fuel more safely.

But a line snapped once tension was applied, Kenney said, and within a few hours, the Coast Guard and its state and local partners packed it in, driving empty fuel receptacles away and mostly clearing the scene, which had been crowded with several dozen contract and government personnel.

Kenney said she was not overly worried about more fuel escaping the stranded vessel, saying it did not appear any other tanks, located in the rear of the boat, had been compromised.


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