A storied U.S. research vessel met an ignoble end this week, sinking at dockside near Willapa Bay in Washington State, as Coast Guard officials federalized the small fuel spill that resulted and began a cleanup.
The 125’x30’4”x12’6” Hero, launched in 1968 by Harvey F. Gamage, Shipbuilder, Inc., South Bristol, Maine, was a heavily built wooden trawler, diesel powered but with a ketch sailing rig, that for nearly two decades served as the National Science Foundation research vessel in Antarctica.
The Coast Guard opened the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund for $25,000 to minimize pollution potential from the vessel at a pier on the Palix River in Bay Center, Wash. Shellfish growers had been worried about a potential spill from the deteriorated vessel affecting their oyster beds, and pressed state and federal environmental officials to monitor the risk.
Global Diving and Salvage, Seattle, was engaged to help with the removal of more than 70 gallons of diesel fuel and lube oil from the vessel, the Coast Guard reported, Coast Guard and Washington Department of Ecology personnel assessed pollution risks. A light sheening was reported as response crews deployed sorbent booms and pads around the vessel to contain any remaining oil.
Powered by twin 368-hp engines, the vessel resembled classic Eastern side rig trawlers of the day, but was built for ice, as a 1968 article in the Antarctic Journal noted:
“Her mast and some interior work is of Oregon fir, and, in the tradition of ice-working vessels, her keel and sides are sheathed with tropical greenheart from Guyana…the ship's skeleton consists of an 18”x18” keel and 6”x6” framing spaced only 8” apart. Oak planking 2” inches thick overlies the framing, and the sheathing along the forward part of the hull – which will have the greatest contact with ice – is overlain by metal plating. Other unusual features of the Hero are the duality of much of her machinery and equipment, such as the double boiler, double engine, standby heating and circulating pumps, two generating power plants, and spare shaft, propeller, and sails.”
Retired after a final 1984 cruise, the Hero was acquired as government surplus for $5,000 in 1985 by the Port of Umpqua in Reedsport, Ore. A group of local residents formed the International Oceanographic Hero Foundation, with a goal to restore the vessel as an education research center and museum, supported by Antarctic scientists and former crew members.
But like so many restoration projects, the Hero effort struggled to raise money and maintain the vessel. After a contentious breakup of the project, the Hero was sold at auction and passed on in 2000 to Bill Wechter, a former Coast Guard member and Alaska fisherman, who got the boat into drydock for the first time in a decade.
In 2008, the boat was sold again and moved to Bay Center. Veterans of the science program at Palmer Station, the Hero’s Antarctic port of call, over the years reported that new owner Sun Feather Lightdancer had been working on restoration, but that progress fell behind and the vessel deteriorated further by 2014.