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Bulker aground for a week after hitting charted Lake Superior reef

Aug 31, 2016 10:55 AM
The bulker Philip R. Clarke arrives to assist Roger Blough near Gros Cap Reef.

Courtesy Transport Canada, U.S. Coast Guard

The bulker Philip R. Clarke arrives to assist Roger Blough near Gros Cap Reef.

The 833-foot laker Roger Blough was downbound in Lake Superior when it struck a reef near Sault Ste. Marie. The ship remained there for a week, with its bow hard aground in Canadian waters and its stern floating in the United States.

The U.S.-flagged ship’s forward section ran onto Gros Cap Reef, which marks the eastern edge of the shipping channel, at about 1330 on May 27. The reef is clearly marked on navigational charts covering Whitefish Bay.

The 44-year-old bulk carrier had departed Duluth, Minn., with a load of taconite bound for ports in the lower Great Lakes. It ran aground north of the town of Brimley, Mich., near Gros Cap Reef Light. Great Lakes Fleet Inc. of Duluth, Minn., owns the ship and Keystone Shipping Co. of Philadelphia operates it.

The grounding caused minor flooding within several of the ship’s ballast tanks but did not result in crew injuries or pollution.

The U.S. Coast Guard and Canadian authorities are investigating the incident and will explore why the vessel was traveling so close to the channel’s edge near a known obstruction.

Taconite is transferred by conveyor belt to lighten the grounded ship’s load.

Courtesy Transport Canada, U.S. Coast Guard

“It is a very rocky bottom ... the channel is the depth to allow safe navigation as you enter into the St. Marys River to go downbound in the Great Lakes,” Petty Officer Lauren Laughlin, a Coast Guard spokeswoman, said in a recent interview. “For whatever reason, and this is still under investigation, they were a little too close to the edge and got into the shallower depths that exceeded their draft.”

Roger Blough has a listed draft of 39 feet. Depth information for the location of the grounding was not available.

The Canadian Coast Guard and Transport Canada also responded to the incident to monitor possible environmental impacts and the ship’s stability.

“They were primarily brought on because it is a shared waterway and it literally happened on the boundary line of U.S.-Canadian waters,” Laughlin said.

Multiple attempts to reach a spokesman for Fisheries and Oceans Canada for comment on that country’s response were not successful.

U.S. Coast Guard vessels and air crews responded to the grounded freighter. Overnight on May 28, crew aboard the ship monitored tanks while the Coast Guard checked the vessel’s draft each hour to look for flooding.

Pat Rossi illustration/Source: U.S. Coast Guard

By May 29, the ship was considered stable. The ship’s fuel tanks are located toward the stern, away from the forward section damaged during the grounding, the Coast Guard said. Even so, an oil spill response firm laid containment boom around the vessel as a precaution.

Lightering began June 3 with the arrival of the laker Philip R. Clarke, and the next day Roger Blough was freed from the reef. The ship sailed under its own power to a Waiska Bay anchorage with support from tugboats.

The remaining taconite was offloaded at the anchorage into Philip R. Clarke and Arthur M. Anderson. On June 11, the ship left the anchorage and began sailing down the St. Marys River with help from a tug. The laker headed to a Sturgeon Bay, Wis., shipyard for hull repairs.

Capt. Bruce Fernie, vice president of operations for Keystone Shipping, confirmed basic details of the incident but would not discuss a possible cause or the extent of the hull damage, citing the ongoing investigation.

He said the company’s response plans worked as intended after the accident. He also praised the cooperation between the company and U.S. and Canadian authorities.

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