|The facts: The 13-year-old ship, flying the flag of Singapore, left Japan full of cars, stacked on 14 levels, and tied down with nylon straps, en route for Vancouver, then Tacoma, Washington, then a port near Los Angeles. Apparently 60 percent of the cars aboard were 2007 Mazda 3s, 30 percent are Mazda CX-7s and the rest were a smattering of other Mazda models, plus some Lexuses, Mitsubishis and Toyotas. On July 23, as the Cougar Ace approached U.S. waters, the crew began the very routine process of discharging ballast water, to be replaced by fresh ballast water.|
As you might imagine, PCC ships ("Pure Car Carriers," as they are called; drop that into the conversation, or your column, and people might mistakenly think you know what you're talking about) are comparatively top-heavy, and ballast down low helps keep them upright. Periodically during the trip, a ship has to change out its ballast water because taking on ballast water in one spot and discharging it a few thousand miles away could introduce harmful marine life from one part of the ocean into another, thus initiating a Robin Cook novel.
For reasons not yet revealed, as the Cougar Ace transferred ballast, it did not properly take on new ballast, or at least did not distribute the ballast properly, so along comes a li'l wave and the next thing you know, the ship has flopped over at a 75-degree angle on its side. Its port side. Port is left. See? We're learning together. Talladega Superspeedway's turns are banked at 33 degrees, so you can imagine what 75 degrees is like.
The first priority, of course, was the crew of 23 — two Singaporeans, 13 Filipinos and 8 Myanmars (Myanmar is the former Burma). At night, 230 miles from the nearest land — the tip of Alaska's Aleutian Islands — ship steward Saw Kyin walked out of the bathroom and suddenly slid down the deck until he was able to grip the railing, just feet from the ocean, he told the Anchorage Daily News. He was dangling there, naked, with a fractured right ankle and a left leg broken so badly the bone was sticking out through the skin. Fellow crewmen rescued him, and they were all rescued 23 hours later by the U.S. Coast Guard and Alaska Air National Guard.
Then the priority turned to the ship itself. Its owner, Mitsu OSK Lines of Japan, hired salvage crews to try and secure the ship, which drifted for 312 nautical miles, fortunately in the general direction of the Aleutians. The tug Emma Foss towed the Cougar Ace 25 miles, then the Sea Victory took over, towing it 472 nautical miles to Wide Bay on Unalaska Island. Early on, a naval architect named Marty Johnson, part of the salvage team, was preparing to leave the Cougar Ace and unhooked his safety harness. He slipped and fell, hit his head and died. He was 42. To those of us observing all this with amusement from a million miles away, the story became far less amusing.
Unalaska is the biggest city in the Aleutians, and the 11th largest city in Alaska, with a population of 4,400. The central industry is fishing — on the Unalaska Web site, the most frequently asked question is, "How do I get a job on a crab boat?" Indeed, nearby Dutch Harbor bills itself as the busiest fishing port in the world — and it may have taken a bit of a selling job to local citizens to assure them that the arrival of a still-listing Cougar Ace would not present a problem, as pretty much all of the 142,184 gallons of fuel oil and 34,182 gallons of marine diesel fuel were still aboard; a major spill would be a disaster, and suddenly, there would be no jobs at all on crab boats. A public briefing for local citizens seems to have calmed fears before the salvage headquarters relocated to the Unalaska Sheraton Inn.
On August 16, the salvage company had finished its job. By pumping water from the Number 9 deck on the port side into ballast tanks on the starboard side, the Cougar Ace righted itself. Almost. "The vessel still has a small list to port to contain the small pockets of water still onboard, but is well within the vessel's normal operating parameters," said the salvage team, which turned the Cougar Ace back over to Mitsu OSK, the owner. According to the Journal of Commerce, the Coast Guard said that most decks of the ship "suffered vehicle damage and that all vehicles must be re-secured," which is bad news for Mazda, worse news for Mitsu OSK and its insurance company. Still, once the Cougar Ace is towed to a "discharging port" — possibly Vancouver — where the cars can be unloaded, it seems likely the Mazdas won't be a total loss. At the very least, you'd think a lot of Mistu OSK executives will be driving new, if slightly dented and damp CX-7s.
Which, in view of previous and comparable incidents, makes this an unusual story. In March, 1972, a cargo ship that happened to be carrying 300 Dodge Colts wrecked just off Vancouver Island in fog. Though about half the cars were removed from the ship, the rest became the subject of individual salvage operations by local citizens in fishing boats, who emerged with bits and pieces, and even engines, from the Colts before the ship broke apart and sank.
In May, 2004, the M/V Hyundai 105 sank south of Singapore after colliding with an oil tanker. Lost at sea were about 3,000 new Hyundais and Kias, plus a thousand used Japanese cars bound for Germany. And in December 2002, the best-known car carrier disaster occurred when the Tricolor — a Norwegian carrier with 2,862 Volvos, BMWs, Saabs and other European cars — sank in the English Channel after colliding with another ship. Because the Channel is so busy, the Tricolor was raised, but only after being sawed in pieces. There are photos around of new Volvo XC90s, cut in half.
By comparison, then, everyone was lucky at how the Cougar Ace incident turned out. Everyone but the late naval architect Marty Johnson, whose death is a reminder of just how dangerous that business can be — that these cars don't just turn up in our driveways. There's a grassroots effort afoot to rename the Cougar Ace the M/V Marty Johnson, once the ship is rehabilitated. That would be an appropriate tribute.