Coast Guard’s Lam directs drifting ship rescue and saving ships from Port of Benicia fire

On April 7th, the U.S. Coast Guard coordinated a successful effort to prevent a 1,700 TEU container ship, which lost power, going aground on Northern California’s Point Reyes National Seashore.

The drifting vessel was carrying 39,000 gallons of fuel on board, which could have caused a spill along the coast of the scenic National Park impacting wildlife and beaches.

As if the rescue of the drifting ship were not enough, the Coast Guard was also called on to coordinate the rescue of three ships tied up at a pier when fire broke out at the San Francisco Bay Port of Benicia on April 9th.

The Singaporean flagged Wan Hai 176 had departed the Port of Oakland on Friday April 7th and was sailing north off of Point Reyes when the Vessel Traffic System (VTS) team at U.S. Coast Guard Sector San Francisco noticed that the vessel was not making headway.

In an interview with AJOT, Captain Taylor Lam, Captain of the Port, Sector San Francisco, provided a point-by-point description of events:

“Around 1300 (Friday April 7th) our Vessel Traffic Service noted that the vessel was not making headway on their AIS screens. VTS contacted the captain of the Wan Hai and said, ‘we see you loitering there what’s going on?’ That’s when the vessel told VTS that ‘we’re having some propulsion issues that they were working on’. …At that point they were several miles off the coast of Point Reyes with 55 knot winds and with 15-foot seas.”

Captain Taylor Lam, Captain of the Port, Sector San Francisco
Captain Taylor Lam, Captain of the Port, Sector San Francisco

Lam said he agreed to have the vessel anchor: “They wanted to anchor and because they were not in a traffic separation scheme (impacting vessel traffic) I said ‘yes.’ We needed to know whether their anchor was holding and the status of the propulsion system.”

Unfortunately, the Wan Hai’s first anchor did not hold: “They said ‘we have one anchor and we’re dragging toward Point Reyes, and they were going to deploy a second anchor.’

At which point, Lam said: “We need to get eyes on this.”

And so, Coast Guard aircraft were dispatched: “And we had a Coast Guard fixed wing aircraft and Coast Guard helicopter on to the scene and fly overhead and see what’s going on.”

A Command Center was established that included a Marin County official (location of Point Reyes) and California Office of Spill Prevention and Response: “It was an all-hands-on deck effort with the tugs getting out there with the ship now at seven miles off Point Reyes. …And the tugs that showed up did not initially have tow line capability. They could block and they could push.”

And so, on Friday night the tugs deployed to block the Wan Hai 176 and protect the Point Reyes coast and National Park:” On Friday night the tugs acted as a barrier between the vessel and Point Reyes …. The next morning, still inclement weather, we got more tugs out and we had three tugs out and they tried to put a tow line on the vessel, but they could not put it on safely. And that weather window was evaporating …and so we had to wait until Sunday.”

Thankfully, the weather improved and following discussions with stakeholders, the U.S. Coast Guard Unified Command and a vessel salvage expert, the decision was made to tow the vessel back into the San Francisco Bay: “And the rest, as they say, is history.”

The tug, Delta Deanna, was able to pass tow lines to the Wan Hai 176’s crew and began towing the vessel with the tugs Stacey Foss, Delta Billie, Delta Deanna and Rachel Allen escorting the ship to anchorage nine in the San Francisco Bay.

The Classification Society went on board the vessel and repairs were made: “They did a full power trial in the Bay. The ship was good to go. So, I lifted the Captain of the Port order and the vessel … has departed.”

According to the Vessel Finder website, the Wan Hai 176 is enroute to Seattle, “sailing at a speed of 9.2 knots and expected to arrive there on Apr 17th.”

Fire Strikes Port of Benicia

That unfortunately was not the end of the week-end’s challenges for Captain Lam and his team at Sector San Francisco.

As the Wan Hai was being towed back to the San Francisco Bay on Sunday April 9th a fire broke out at the Port of Benicia where three ships were tied up including a tanker.

Lam said the Coast Guard was called upon by the Benicia Fire department to assist with vacating the three vessels from the pier.

Lam said fire threatened the ships: “We were concerned about the threat to the three ships that were moored adjacent to the fire … The location of the fire was located off the bow of the tanker that was moored there and between the stern of the bulk carrier that was moored there. Further to the West was a roll on / roll off ship. We implemented a 1,000-yard safety zone to keep folks away from the area as the firefighting efforts continued. That was implemented by a small boat Coast Guard station as well as a Maritime Safety and Security team … which is a Coast Guard asset we asked help from.”

Lam said, “we even requested help from the U.S. Coast Guard Pacific Strike Team (PST) to advise the Fire Department on air and water hazards.”

The PST is one of three special teams that make up the National Strike Force.

According to the Coast Guard website: “It is a vital national asset comprised of a unique, highly trained cadre of Coast Guard professionals who maintain and rapidly deploy with specialized equipment and incident management skills any time to any place or hazard. The PST is … expert authority in the … response to … oil discharges, hazardous substance releases, weapons of mass destruction events, and other emergencies.”

SF Bar Pilots To The Rescue

At the same time, Sector San Francisco’s Vessel Traffic Service alerted the San Francisco Bar Pilots that they needed to rush to Benicia to pilot the ships off the pier and out of harm’s way in coordination with tugboat assist captains.

In a statement the San Francisco Bar Pilots stated:

“Over the weekend, the San Francisco Bar Pilots were swiftly dispatched to the emergency scene of a four-alarm fire that broke out at the Port of Benicia. The pilots safely maneuvered three ships from the berth and out of danger, allowing the fireboats to reach and battle the flames directly from the water. Thank you to the firefighters for their expertise and courageous work that contained and extinguished the blaze. We are grateful that no one was injured, and we are proud of our pilots who responded quickly and professionally to support the effort.”

Lam said: ““We rushed to get the pilots onboard the ships, take the lines in and get the ships under way and away from the pier. I am glad to report that all three ships get away without any incident or damage.”

In a LinkedIn post, Captain Lam praised the pilots:

“The impressive professionalism and commitment of our Bar Pilots continues to amaze and humble all of us in the maritime community. Bravo Zulu on keeping the public, environment, and marine transportation system safe!”

Stas Margaronis
Stas Margaronis


Contact Author

© Copyright 1999–2023 American Journal of Transportation. All Rights Reserved