A ship’s end: No white linen and a lot of black oil

The Pacific coast of the continent is almost as beautiful in the state of Washington as it is on Haida Gwaii; where forests shoulder their way down to the sea, rivers tumble down the mountain sides to the shore, where you can stand on the edge of the world and look way, way out to sea from long reaches of sandy ocean beach.

It is a mighty landscape, these western shores—great winter storms blasting in off the Pacific, booming rollers of surf crashing along the tide lines, winds that roar and scream. So you might be forgiven for missing the fact that the maritime landscape is also complex, interconnected, and … delicate. This is especially so where sea meets land in estuaries, river deltas, and harbors. In the sheltering dunes the shore line is settled, and unsettled and resettled. It’s a continual renegotiation.

Such a place is Gray’s Harbor on the western coast of Washington State. Gray’s Harbor is beautiful inlet encircled by long spits of sand and open to the Pacific Ocean. It lies on the Olympic peninsula a little south and east of Tacoma, where Aberdeen and Hoquiam are.

The long beach shorelines and flat grasslands in the harbor boast a rich ecology. The area is inhabited by a variety of marine life that people of Haida Gwaii would recognize—grey whales, harbor seals, salmon, trout, herring, anchovies, crab. The Harbor is a resting stop for birds on the north-south migratory flyway, and two threatened species, the western snowy plover and the streaked horned lark, nest in the area.

The winter storms in Gray’s Harbor are wild—and as anyone on Haida Gwaii can easily imagine, the cumulative effect of wild wind on vast reaches of fine sand creates impressive effects.

And this is the place where SS Catala came to rest finally.

The SS Catala, which served the British Columbia coast for more than 30 years in the fleet of the Union Steamship Lines, (see previous post) was sold to Nelson Brothers for a fish buying ship in 1959. A couple of years later she went to Seattle to become a floatel for the Seattle World’s Fair. After the Fair, she went from Seattle to Gray’s Harbor where she was moored wharf-side to become a lodge for sports fisherman.

From here the story goes a lot sideways. The end of ships is never a pretty sight.

In 1965, a winter storm smashed into Gray’s Harbor with winds of 112 km per hour – 70 mph – a real howler. During the storm, the Catala broke her moorings and was driven into a spit of sand known as Damon’s Point, where the ship, filled with sand and water, was stranded.

Long gone were the days of white linen table cloths in an elegant dining room, luxurious accommodation (for some) and honest working days at sea. The end came as a hazardous rusting hulk washed up in the sand.

SS Catala on the beach at Damon's Point in Gray's Harbor, Washington in the 1960s

In her derelict condition, she became a tourist attraction—a destination for hiking expeditions on the beach, much like the Pesuta shipwreck is on the east coast of Haida Gwaii. At some point in the 1980s, the rotting upper sections of the decks became dangerous, so they were cut away and the hull was buried in the sand.

Until, some 20 years later, along comes more wind and weather and the shifting of sands, and the wreck is unburied again!

A beach walker, coming across the exposed top of the hull, stuck a stick into a hatch on the hold and it came out covered with thick, sticky, very black bunker oil.

Heavy oil from the SS Catala forward hold. Damon's Point.

When it was reported in 2006, the Washington State Department of Ecology recognized the situation as an emergency.

There it was: the rusting hull deeply embedded in sand, in the intertidal zone, in an ecologically sensitive area. By this time, it had been washed up there for 40 years. And it contained up to 60,000 gallons of bunker oil (worst case scenario). Asbestos was also found on the site.

When all was said and done, the Department of Ecology later said the operation was a “near miss” as several make-shift patches on holes in the hull had all but given-way in the wind and the weather. The very first efforts on the site has dislodged one of the metal patches releasing oil and tar balls within the containment area, throwing work plans into a sense of immediate urgency to complete the job successfully.

The plan was to excavate the hull which was buried 26 feet deep at the stern, remove sand which had filled every corner of the interior spaces, pump out the oil, clean the tanks and then remove the whole hull from the beach and restore the site. The work season was very short, between the end of the birds’ nesting season in late July until the arrival of the ocean storms in October.

A portion of the hull of the SS Catala exposed before recovery work began. photo-Dept. of Ecology State of Washington

Access to the salvage site was sketchy, along a narrow spit of sand exposed to ocean surges. There was an old road out to Damon’s Point which had to be dug out from up to ten feet of accumulated sand. It took eleven semis to truck in the pieces of the heavy-duty crane needed, and there was not much of a turn around at the end of the road.

The first thing the salvagers did was build a steel containment cell and a boom to protect workers from unstable sand and incoming and outgoing tidal water. The steel walls were driven almost 40 feet deep down into the sand and the area contained was 244 feet by 54 feet.

Aerial view of the recovery work site on Damon's Point. 2006 - photo Dept. of Ecology State of Washington

The oil in the ship’s four tanks was so thick it had to be heated to be pumped out. Gunk left in the tanks had to be scraped off by hand, scrubbed with undiluted citrus cleaner and the whole ship steam cleaned to prevent any future seepages.

Asbestos sheeting had been used as insulation in the bulkheads and it had to be removed by the crew crawling around on their hands and knees in the hold in full hazmat gear. In the end 33 cubic yards of asbestos materials had been collected, most of it about the size of a phone book.

The oil removal was completed in the first season, and the remains of Catala’s hull were hauled out off the site in 2007.

Worker emerging from inside the hold of the SS Catala during recovery. -photo Dept. of Ecology State of Washington

In the end, 34,500 gallons of bunker oil were removed from the hull, 360,000 gallons of contaminated water used during the salvage were taken off-site for treatment, 345 tons of scrap steel were removed, and the site was restored. Total cost of the clean-up: $7 million.

Note: Recovery information is from a report “Intertidal Zone Recovery from the Buried Derelict S.S. Catala” by M.W. (Mac) McCarthy Mac McCarthy, Inc. Edmonds, WA, USA
Devon Grennan, Global Diving & Salvage, Inc. Seattle, WA, USA, presented at an International Oil Spill Conference 2008, in Savannah Georgia

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About blue sea sky

By Cynthia Jones Davies, writer researcher who lives on Haida Gwaii.
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