Author: Jason Rogers, PhD: Northern Land Use Research Alaska, LLC, Senior Project Archaeologist
The Aleutian chain is the final resting place for literally hundreds of wrecked vessels (over 180 wrecks are listed in a compilation prepared by staff of the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge). The earliest recorded shipwreck in the Aleutians is that of Vitus Bering’s vessel Sv. Petr, returning to Kamchatka on his initial voyage of exploration. The Sv. Petr wrecked on the island that would later bear Bering’s name, and where the explorer himself died. In modern times, the Aleutian chain is frequented by numerous fishing vessels, and transited by thousands of cargo ships every year on the ‘Great Circle’ route between Asia and North America. Grounding, stranding, and wrecking are still all too common events, occasionally with disastrous consequences- a recent example is that of the Malaysian freighter Selandang Ayu, which lost power and was driven aground at Skan Bay on the northwest coast of Unalaska Island in 2004. Six crewmembers died during the event, and 350,000 gallons of diesel and bunker oil were released, requiring a major clean-up along many miles of remote oiled coastline.
In June 2014, historical background and field investigations of two modern period shipwrecks at Eareckson Air Station on Shemya Island were undertaken at the request of the U.S. Air Force (Rogers 2014). Although no removal or salvage is currently contemplated, the USAF PACAF Regional Support Center Cultural Resources Program Manager requested the inventory and evaluation for responsibilities under section 110 of the National Historic Preservation Act. The vessels investigated are Barge No. 18, a tank barge situated above the high-tide line on a sand and gravel beach on the north side of the island; and F/V Opty, a commercial fishing vessel lodged on a rocky point at the northwest end of the island.
Barge No. 18 is a 275-foot long steel-hulled tank barge built in Alameda, California, in 1957. The barge was in tow by the tug Wando in 1958, bringing a cargo of petroleum fuel to supply the Northwest Orient Airlines refueling and operations base on Shemya (1956 – 1961), when she broke loose and grounded. Over the years she was used as a source of scrap metal for various projects on the island, and large amounts of steel were cut and salvaged. As her condition worsened, however, military authorities placed her off limits. The vessel’s current condition is poor, as salvage and corrosion have taken their toll. The physical environment of the cove and beach has changed greatly since the grounding in 1958. Historic photos show the vessel’s stern completely exposed and resting on a rocky substrate. Over the past 56 years, sand accumulation has buried the entire starboard side to the deck level, and the stern is exposed for only two feet above the level of the sand. The landform on the vessel’s port (landward) side appears stabilized by thick vegetation growth, although the starboard (seaward) side is still active and impacted by wave action. Despite salvage and exposure Barge No. 18 is for the most part stable and not in danger of structural collapse.
The 139-foot F/V Opty was built as on offshore supply vessel (OSV) in 1970, in Jennings, Louisiana. She was christened Flying Diamond 2, and used to support the offshore oil industry in the Gulf of Mexico. In the mid-1980s she was converted to a commercial fishing vessel and renamed Opty. In December 1988, she was fishing in the Bering Sea, and had anchored offshore of Shemya Island for the night. Early on a snowy and windy morning their anchor dragged, and the vessel was blown ashore. The vessel took on water, and the crew had to abandon ship. They were hauled onshore by hand lines by fire and security personnel, as Shemya had no water rescue capabilities. All crew members were successfully brought to shore with only minor hypothermia. Approximately 15,000 gallons of fuel was spilled into the ocean. The vessel was driven onto a steep rocky point of land, completely exposed to northerly swells. F/V Opty’s current condition is calamitous – the vessel has been seriously damaged by marine processes, and is approaching the point of total structural collapse. The entire bottom hull is torn out from midships forward, the aft deck has buckled, and much of the vessel’s starboard side is gone as well. F/V Opty’s further disintegration is inevitable as the vessel is further impacted by storms and wave action.
The disparate rates of vessel disintegration can be directly attributed to their differential exposure to marine processes. Barge No. 18, in a relatively protected cove (and increasingly buried in sandy sediment), shows much slower rates of breakdown than F/V Opty. The total exposure of Opty’s starboard side, as well as the rocky substrate, has resulted in accelerated rates of fragmentation and collapse.
October header image: Barge No. 18 | Jason Rogers | Shemya | 2014.