BAY CENTER — A ship that was built to withstand some of the most brutal weather conditions on earth went down on a rainy day in early spring.
On Saturday, March 4, the R/V Hero, a famous but neglected research vessel, sank into the South Fork of the Palix River, where she had been moored for about 10 years in front of the property of her most recent owner, Sun Feather LightDancer.
Designed to advance conservation and scientific understanding, the 125-foot wooden boat once played a vital role in Antarctic exploration. However, oyster farmers fear pollution from the Hero will harm the oysters they grow in the Palix River where it meets Willapa Bay.
On Sunday, March 5, responders from the U.S. Coast Guard and state Department of Ecology came out to see the boat, but didn’t place spill-containment booms around it.
“It’s not considered a pollution threat, and so right now we are monitoring it,” USCG Petty Officer First Class Levi Reid said on Monday. However, a DOE email sent late Monday night suggested that the agencies had changed their tune.
“The vessel has been leaking an oil sheen, which now poses a risk to the shellfish community near Bay Center,” Linda Pilkey-Jarvis, a member of the DOE Spills Program wrote. She noted that while “removal of the pollution threat is the immediate goal,” uncertainty over who actually owns the boat — and who would pay for cleanup — was complicating the response.
LightDancer spoke to a sheriff’s deputy Monday afternoon, but did not come to the door when a reporter knocked a few minutes later.
At low tide on Monday afternoon, workers from the oyster facilities along Bay Center Dike Road stood on the dock of Bay Center Mariculture, looking at the iridescent ribbon of oil floating downstream from the Hero.
The sagging mast, cabin and parts of the deck were still above water, but the boat was listing badly and most of the faded green hull was submerged. Bales of junk bound to the top of the cabin leaned precariously over the water. The cabin was rust-stained; the deck blistered and peeling.
According to Pilkey-Jarvis, USCG officials found at least 25 gallons of lube oil and five gallons of diesel oil on the boat in 2013, but the current amount of oil on board the Hero is unknown. She said the initial responders did not place the booms due to “fast moving currents in the river and navigation concerns.”
All of the people who use the bay and are concerned about the bay are concerned about it,” Dick Wilson of Bay Center Mariculture said in a March 6 phone interview. Wilson said he and other oyster growers had asked numerous times that Lightdancer, the Coast Guard and DOE to do more to prevent oil from polluting the bay.
On Tuesday morning, a diving team arrived at at the boat, BCM employee Jim Stackhouse said. At 11 a.m., they were waiting for the Coast Guard to arrive before getting started.
“They’re going to dive in there and make sure there is no oil or anything in there,” Stackhouse said.
The Hero was a product of an era of federal optimism, largesse and scientific curiosity.
She was named after the sloop that 20-year-old seal-hunter Nathaniel Palmer sailed in 1820, when he became the first person to set eyes on Antarctica. However, the National Science Foundation had a loftier goal in mind when it commissioned the boat in 1964: to support scientists as they explored the untapped potential of Antarctica.
“Whereas the sealers of 1820 were competing fiercely in the search for new sealing grounds, today’s scientists — of many nations — work in harmony in the quest for basic knowledge,” the author of a 1968 Antarctic Journal article wrote.
With a shallow bottom and sophisticated equipment, the Hero was designed to reach previously inaccessible areas, and to “operate alone in some of the stormiest, most remote waters of the world, frequently in close proximity to sea ice,” according to the article.
She was one of the last wooden boats built by the Harvey F. Gamage shipyard in Bristol, Maine. Builders there used a frame made from massive New England oaks. They built the keel and sides with tropical hardwood from Guyana, and the mast and interior with Oregon fir. On the parts of the hull most vulnerable to ice damage, metal plates overlaid thick oak planks. Though she was driven by a diesel engine, she could also be sailed, so that scientists could study wildlife without frightening it away. The finished boat weighed 300 tons — “a huge weight,” according to Wilson.
The Hero was spartan — with no electronic navigation aids, the crew had to rely heavily on “celestial observations,” and tiny living quarters were crammed into odd spots all over the boat. However, she carried an array of scientific equipment that was state-of-the-art for its time.
“The Hero, of course, was one of the last of the pure exploration ships. That is, people would get on her and say, ‘Go see what you can find,’” former Hero Capt. Pete Lenie said in a 1992 interview. “The only reason I stayed on was that no day was the same as the one before.”
After a round of trial runs, the ship arrived at the Palmer research station in Antarctica for the first time on Christmas Day 1968. Throughout the 1970s, the boat continued ferrying scientists to Palmer. During the Antarctic summers, oceanographers, geologists and biologists explored remote parts of the continent. In the winter, the Hero sailed out of South America.
Scientists studied the effects of volcanic eruptions on the ocean, the life cycle of brilliant red krill, the geography of the ocean floor, antarctic plants and animals, and much more, under the management of various contractors and ship’s captains.
In 1972, while under Lenie’s command, the ship helped the famous explorer Jacques Cousteau when a member of his crew was fatally injured. The boat came to the rescue of Polish scientists when their research station ran dangerously low on supplies and, in 1984 helped scientists at the Argentine research station after someone there burned it down.
By the mid-1980s, the boat was outdated and in need of maintenance. In 1984, the Port of Umpqua acquired it for $5,000 and retired it to Reedsport, Oregon. Within a few years though, a nonprofit group’s plan to restore the boat fell apart amid controversy.
The boat’s ownership and future were uncertain until Bill Wechter, a retired guardsman and fisherman, bought it in 2000. He did some restoration work while the boat was in dry dock, before moving it to Newport. Then in 2008, he sold it to LightDancer.
In 2012, LightDancer told Portland Monthly financial problems kept him from doing much restoration work. LightDancer, who was described as a “half Blackfoot Indian concrete handler/musician,” told the magazine he was trying to sell it for around $50,000.
“We looked into all kinds of different possibilities,” Charles Lagerbom, the Maine-based historian for the Antarctican Society said in a phone interview. The Antarcticans — a group of people who have lived or worked in Antarctica — approached museums and the University of Maine in hopes of winning support to preserve the boat.
“There was a lot of sympathy, but nobody was really willing to step up financially to help,” Lagerbom explained. The boat was too far gone to sail by then. Although LightDancer was willing to part with it for “a fairly reasonable cost,” the expense of hauling it back to the East Coast proved prohibitive.
According to Pilkey-Jarvis, the question of whether a federal fund could pay to raise the boat is “complicated.” She explained that while the owner or “spiller” is typically responsible for the cleanup costs and damages, “In this case, there is some uncertainty about ownership and ability to pay.”
Pilkey-Jarvis said the state Department of Natural Resources will handle future plans for salvaging or removing the vessel.
In the meantime, she advised oyster growers to contact a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist for advice about how the spill might affect their oyster farms. She said the farmers may be able to seek compensation from the National Pollution Fund Center if the spill affects oyster.
“This is an unfortunate situation,” Pilkey-Jarvis wrote.
“It’s too bad that it’s now just a memory. I would have liked to have seen more interest in wanting to save it,” Lagerbom said, noting that it could have been used to educate the public about Antarctica, or about Maine’s maritime history.
He added, “It was built to withstand ice and rocks and everything else, and what did it in was rain.”