Crew of Sunken Tug Turned Down a Tow Off the Rocks
A radio traffic recording obtained by Canada's Globe and Mail reveals that the bridge team of the tugboat Nathan E. Stewart declined the Canadian Coast Guard's offers to pull their vessel off the rocks – including an offer made before the Stewart sustained a hull breach and began taking on water.
The Stewart eventually sank, spilling an unknown quantity of diesel and lube oil into the waters of the Inside Passage near Bella Bella, B.C.
In the first call, Coast Guard lifeboat Cape St. James hailed the Stewart and offered to help refloat the tug by towing her to deeper water.
An unidentified officer on the Stewart responded immediately: "No sir, I do not want to try and pull it off. I do not want to try and pull it off." He asserted that the tug was in no danger of sinking and that there was no need to evacuate her crew. "I don’t want to pull it off unless she starts taking on water," he said.
About four and a half hours after the grounding, the Stewart's bridge team called the Coast Guard to report a hull breach. "We have water coming in, it's coming into the bilge, estimated at between a half gallon and a gallon a minute. Fuel tanks, we believe we have a breach on #1 port, we believe it's breaching into #1 center, also we believe there's a breach between #1 center and #1 starboard."
The flooding soon worsened and oily water began to fill the engine room. The crew abandoned ship onto the attached ATB barge shortly thereafter, and the tug went down (still suspended from its connection pins to the barge) about eight and a half hours after the grounding.
The incident remains under investigation, and the names of the Stewart's crew have not been released. While no official explanation for the cause of the grounding has yet been issued, AIS data shows that the Stewart continued past a commonly used waypoint on her route without changing course or speed.
Salvage efforts to raise and remove the Stewart have been delayed by high winds, but salvors with Resolve Marine used a break in the weather Wednesday to attempt to pull the wreck to deeper water. Heiltsuk tribal councillor Jess Housty said in a social media post that the attempt was unsuccessful; a second try will be made after a blowdown of additional tanks to increase the tug's buoyancy.
The scene of the response on Wednesday (courtesy Jess Housty / Heiltsuk Nation)