January 2002 Table
ABACO'S NARROW ESCAPE
William E Bardelmeier,
Shipping Consultant 'Emeritus'
Bahamian waters tend to be "spread pretty thin" in many yachting/cruising areas so shallow draft hull configurations offer peace of mind for visiting yachtsmen. On the other hand, the Bahamas archipelago has some deep marine ravines or canyons that are heavily travelled by some of the world's largest ships.
Water depth is subjective in that it holds a different perspective to the master of a Very Large Crude Carrier (VLCC) than to the skipper of a 45 feet ketch. Most of us would simply assume there is plenty of water for any vessel to transit the Northeast Providence Channel, the broad nearly two miles deep "super highway" separating North Eleuthera from the southern tip of Great Abaco. It is a principal east-west channel that funnels traffic from the open Atlantic towards the Florida Straits.
This is the story of a maiden voyage disaster in that deep water channel that came very close to leaving the beaches lining some of The Bahamas' best cruising grounds from the northern Abacos to the southern Exumas (borrowing a phrase from President Reagan) "up to their keisters" in black oil. Maiden voyage disasters especially smack of the macabre. We all looked in horrified fascination a decade ago at Dr Ballard's/Alvin's sombre views of the wreckage of the Titanic , arguably the world's best known of a surprising number of tragic losses that befell newly built vessels.
Only a few years before the setting of this present tale, Kaiser Aluminum's new 115,000 ton bulk carrier Elwood Mead, displacing several times the tonnage of the Titanic, steamed into the approaches of the English Channel on a Christmas Eve. She was nearing the end of her maiden voyage from Mitsubishi's shipyard in Japan by way of a brief stop to load 110,000 tons of West Australian iron ore for Rotterdam. At near midnight with what has been said to have been a rollicking Christmas party in the salon below, a junior mate on watch ran the new vessel into the rocky channel coast of France and presented the underwriters with a total loss. (A shrewd Greek shipowner a year later salvaged and completely re-built the battered hulk and operated it for many years.)
Abaco's threat, however, arose from a rare breed of super tanker: a US built, US flag VLCC. There haven't been very many such vessels for they are costly to build and costly to operate. S/S Maryland was one of three 264,000 ton sisters built at the well known Sparrows Point shipyard of Bethlehem Steel Company in late 1976. Like all the large tankers of that era, they had only a single hull.
1,100 feet long with a loaded draft of 68 feet, Maryland, with her 35000 HP General Electric steam turbine plant was designed to steam along at 15.8 knots.
She proceeded from the building shipyard to the oil loading terminal at Brass River, Nigeria, located between the Bight of Bonny and the Bight of Benin. There she took on 255,774 long tons of crude oil. She would have also had 6,000 to 10,000 tons of bunker fuel. With close to her full tropical deadweight of cargo, fuel, stores and fresh water Maryland would have been drawing about 67.5 to 68 feet draft. She sailed to deliver her cargo to the Burma Oil Terminal at South Riding Point, Grand Bahama.
A yachtsman looking at a chart of the Northeast Providence Channel in the Hole in the Wall area can be excused if he fails to notice the bar that extends southeast from Hole in the Wall. The bar extends a distance of about eight miles and at its seaward end is about 67 feet deep before dropping precipitously to 2,400 feet. While the yachtsmen will be forgiven for his lack of attention to that bar, skippers of VLCC's will not be.
On the morning of 5th November, 1976, after a 4,500 mile run from Nigeria, Maryland was steaming along at almost 16 knots when she reached that bar. despite having burned off about 3,000 tons of fuel en route, the Maryland would have still had a draft of near 67 feet. Additionally, large ships moving rapidly through shoaling water are acted upon by a force that presses them down deeper in the water. It is known to the naval architect as "squat". Depending upon a number of factors including the depth of water and speed, squat can add as much as a couple of feet to the depth of water needed to float a ship such as the Maryland.
In an incident that was surely highly embarrassing to the pride of Cunard Lines about ten years ago the QE2 nearly broke her back while racing at 23+ knots across shallow Buzzards Bay in Massachusetts. Taking into account her size, lines, speed and the shallow water the QE2 was probably subject to about eight feet of squat at the time, according to US Coast Guard experts. Cunard, in its embarrassment, expressed doubt there was any significant squat effect at the time.
With her great mass and speed, Maryland demonstrated that the marine charts were pretty accurate. That is to say, the chart showed there was a little less water depth over the bar than the Maryland's draft. Maryland didn't break her back on that Bahamian bar; instead, almost three acres of her one-inch-plus thick steel bottom plating was pushed upward as she slid across and kept going towards South Riding Point less than 80 miles away.
Despite setting the stage for one of the largest steel repair jobs in shipping history, Maryland miraculously had no gaping holes in her sides and berthed at Riding Point with what Lloyds newspaper reported simply as "some leaking oil". No mention ever appeared in the Nassau press or radio.
The Maryland was discharged and made ready for a ballast trip to a repair yard in Japan. By sealing off the large atmospheric vent piping leading up from the cargo tanks it is not unusual for empty tankers to safely float on an air bubble to a distant repair yard. The difference between the repair cost if done at her builder's US yard only three day's steaming from South Riding Point versus steaming six weeks to reach Japan was sufficient that the underwriters elected to send her to Japan.
Several months later Maryland resumed service with a new bottom that was rumoured to have comprised about 3,200 tons of new steel. Like the Exxon Valdez she was later operated under a new name. Abaconians didn't have to breathe easy because they never knew that their environment had been threatened that night and early morning 25 years ago.
January 2002 Table
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