Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Argo Merchant: Now It Can Be Told

On December 15, 1976, the tanker Argo Merchant grounded on Fishing Rip, 25 miles southeast of Nantucket. She was loaded with 183,000 barrels (7.7 million gallons, or 24,000 tons) of home heating oil and similar products. stranding was on sand and despite ten foot seas the ship stayed largely intact. By dawn the next day six big tugs were on scene, with combined horsepower much greater than that of the tanker. The tanker had grounded at the bow, and the entire ship swung with each change of the tide. The prospects were excellent, in short, for getting her off and avoiding calamity.

There was one problem: getting the ship off would require pumping 800 tons of the cargo into the sea, to lighten the part of the ship most heavily aground. ("Lightering", or pumping the oil into a barge or ship, was not possible due to shoal water and inadequate equipment.) A friend of mine, who commanded the tugs on scene, told me the request was made to the Coast Guard for permission to jettison the oil, no one would give the authority, and despite the best efforts of the salvors the ship stayed stuck. On December 21 she broke apart in heavy seas and the entire cargo was lost.

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