Crews are racing to recover a sunken, 140-foot fishing boat from the Penn Cove seabed.

Share story

COUPEVILLE, Whidbey Island — Inside a high-tech, converted Chevy truck, state officials and contractors are racing to figure out how to hoist up that old, sunken 140-foot fishing boat, which weighs maybe 750,000 pounds.

There’s a sense of urgency: Crews already have recovered 1,400 or so gallons of oil that leaked from the derelict boat after it caught fire and sank two weeks ago, shutting down the island’s world-famous mussel beds. Now is the mussels’ peak spawning season; their harvest has been closed until cleared by toxicity tests.

The truck, with an ominous-looking skull-and-crossbones “hazardous materials” logo on its side, is a temporary office for state and private contractors with laptops and smartphones, sometimes sketching on the whiteboards that line the walls.

It is a delicate and plainly brutish operation they are planning, with the hoisting maybe on Monday, but more likely in two or three days.

For example, what happens if the boat landed atop a rock spire and has a huge hole in its side?

It’s not until the boat is lifted to just below the water surface that they’ll find out. The boat will hang there for whatever work needs to be done.

“We can patch a six-inch hole by welding underwater. But a 10-by-15-foot hole, it’s not worth it,” says Kris Lindberg, environmental-operations manager for Global Diving & Salvage, the Seattle-based contractor that will lift the boat from the seabed.

Instead of trying to refloat the derelict boat and tow it to a shipyard, it might have to be placed on a barge.

The person everyone here answers to is Dick Walker, the state Department of Ecology’s on-scene coordinator.

Out of old habit, he still jangles a pocketful of quarters in his pant pocket.

He is 61, has been with the agency for 27 years, 15 of them dealing with oil spills, and he remembers the days when he was dealing with some spill in some remote location, and communication consisted of finding a pay phone at a gas station.

Now his BlackBerry rings constantly.

And, instead of having to look for pay phones, he has the converted Chevy Kodiak command truck.

The tab for the Penn Cove recovery just keeps increasing, as Walker tracks the costs on his laptop.

A crew of five or six divers? And the survey work on the wreck, which is on its side in 50 to 60 feet of water, resting in two to three feet of silt? That’s $10,600 a day.

Cost of the two crane barges, with their crews and tugboat, that’ll be used for hoisting the boat? That’ll be $70,000 a day.

Cost of the boom and boats that encircle the sunken vessel and stop the leaking oil from spreading? That’s $14,000 a day.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if this went to $1 million,” says Walker.

It’s already at $750,000 since the Deep Sea sank, and for now, the taxpayers are footing the bill.

The owner of the sunken boat, Rory Westmoreland, a scrap dealer, carried no insurance on the boat, says Walker. Westmoreland has said he has no money to pay for the cleanup, although the state says it’ll go after him for reimbursement.

“To a certain extent, boating in Puget Sound is like the last of the Wild West,” says Walker.

You moor a boat at a private facility, it’ll demand you carry insurance. There is no such law about parking your boat on Puget Sound, says Walker.

Inside the command center, it’s all about the details.

Like how the boat will be lifted.

Two link chains, each 90 feet long, each attached to its own crane, will be used.

Needless to say, they are too heavy for the divers to maneuver under the sunken boat. So, instead, divers will literally tunnel under the hull with jet pumps. They then will run a “messenger line” a half-inch in diameter through that tunnel, and then hook it to the chain.

By then, the divers also will have blown out the silt that has accumulated inside the boat to lighten it.

There is the potential the boat was damaged enough to break in two. So the less it weighs, the less chance of that happening, says Walker.

Divers already have helped pump an additional 3,100 gallons of fuel safely from the tanks. But could there be more?

Everyone knows the urgency of the operation, says Walker.

Ian Jefferds, co-owner of Penn Cove Shellfish, says his company is losing $50,000 a day from not being able to harvest not only the mussels, but also clams and oysters it grows at Penn Cove. It has been able to partially mitigate those losses by harvesting at its facility at Quilcene Bay.

Still, he says, “Without question, it hurts.”

At the war room, the details keep getting worked out.

Nobody knows what caused the boat fire, which burned for some 18 hours.

Walker says one reason the boat filled up with water is it used PVC piping that went out the sides of the boat. The heat was such during the fire that it melted the piping, and water gushed in.

With the boat hoisted up, the plan is to fill the holes with plugs made of wood and epoxy foam.

This weekend, the planning just keeps going, detail after detail.

“We are always thinking, what could go wrong. What sounds like a good idea, and what could go wrong?” says Walker.

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or