High seas and gale-force winds again limited spill-recovery and salvage efforts yesterday from a tanker that split in two off an Aleutian island. Seas projected to reach 24 feet...

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ANCHORAGE — High seas and gale-force winds again limited spill-recovery and salvage efforts yesterday from a tanker that split in two off an Aleutian island.

Seas projected to reach 24 feet and 50-knot winds kept most aircraft and recovery boats in Dutch Harbor and away from waters oiled by the wreck of the 738-foot Selendang Ayu on the west side of Unalaska Island.

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Coast Guard officials hoped to fly over the wreck but had little hope of landing on either of the two sections. An assessment of oil tanks on board is considered critical to developing a salvage plan, but the agency’s first priority is avoiding casualties.

“We have to make sure we do this in a safe manner,” said Capt. Ron Morris, the Coast Guard’s incident commander.

Meanwhile, about 40 tense residents gathered in Dutch Harbor last night to listen to a nightly briefing.

They recognized the limitations of the weather, but expressed frustration that cleanup efforts aren’t moving faster.

“I don’t think you have to be a physics major to know there’s a ton more oil down there than we’ll ever get to see,” said fisherman Dustan Dickerson. “And what are they going to do? Send down divers? Of course not. It’s just going to sit down there and poison and sicken and pollute and the fish and crab for tens of years.”

Incident responders acknowledged that more than Mother Nature was complicating the task.

A research vessel that was scheduled to ferry federal biologists and a pair of international bird-rescue workers to a gravel beach near Skan Bay didn’t make it yesterday.

Safety officers worried that the skiffs the ship carried would prove inadequate to run the scientists ashore; an engineer didn’t arrive from Anchorage until afternoon; and contract issues with the native corporation that owns the vessel still were being ironed out, said Howard Hile, a contractor who represents the Selendang Ayu’s owners.

While workers made progress on efforts to protect salmon streams at the mouths of rivers where a winter sockeye run still is under way, workers ran out of material before they could protect one estuary in wildlife-rich Makushin Bay.

“We saw thousands of birds back there taking shelter,” said Dan Magone, who runs a salvage operation that is trying to board the crippled ship and figure out how to remove it. “There were about 20 harbor seals and a bunch of paddle ducks, but we didn’t have enough boom.”

While state officials have schematic drawings of the cargo hold, they have very poor diagrams of the fuel holds, which thus far has made it impossible to assess how much oil is in the water.

Cleanup crews can’t even determine what type of bottom the broken ship is resting on, while it rocks and waggles about. The most up-to-date nautical charts are from 1936 and just refer to the bottom as “rocky.”

The soybean freighter lost power in its main engine Tuesday. Tugs and Coast Guard cutters were unable to halt its drift to Unalaska Island, where it grounded Wednesday and broke apart.

Just before the ship foundered, a Coast Guard helicopter lifting crewmen off the vessel crashed. Three Coast Guardsmen and one ship crewman were rescued from the water by a second helicopter. Six crew from the Selendang Ayu were lost, and a search for them was suspended Friday night.

The ship was carrying 440,000 gallons of heavy bunker oil and about 30,000 gallons of fuel. The ship split over the No. 2 tank, which had a capacity of 140,000 gallons.

Coast Guard officials say that is the oil that apparently flowed out of the ship.

Morris said incident commanders were planning for one catastrophic release. However, since the initial surge when the ship broke up, oil streaming from the wreck has diminished.

That could mean other tanks on the Selendang Ayu remain intact, but no one will know until the bow and stern pieces are reboarded, said Howard Hile of Gallagher Marine Services, the incident commander for the vessel’s owners.

“There is no way to determine what is still there,” Hile said.

As of Friday, the two parts of the ship remained upright without significant list a couple of hundred yards apart off the rugged island beach, Hile said.

Oil has reached the headlands east of the wreck. Northwest winds also have pushed oil into Skan Bay a few miles north of the wreck.

The Coast Guard has unconfirmed reports of a sheen about 10 miles north of the wreck in the much larger Makushin Bay.

Seattle Times staff reporter Craig Welch and Dan Joling of The Associated Press contributed to this report.