HUNTINGTON BEACH — Owners of the 800-foot-long tanker American Trader, which has spewed hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude oil into the ocean off Huntington Beach, said Thursday that the ship's bottom probably was punctured by its own anchor as the ship maneuvered into an offshore mooring to unload its cargo.
The same tanker has been involved in four other mishaps, two in the last year.
According to the Coast Guard, the 80,000-ton tanker, regarded as only "modest-sized" by today's standards, was drawing 42 feet of water in an area that was 60 to 75 feet deep. Its anchors probably stood seven to eight feet above the sandy bottom.
Maneuvering with that kind of margin is "not unusual in the slightest," said Sanford Schmidt, president of American Trading Transportation Co., which owns the ship. "On the other hand, I'm not going to say whether it was safe. After all, we hit this anchor."
Schmidt said tankers are very stable vessels and so commonly approach moorings with only 10 or 12 feet clearance under their keels. In areas such as the Gulf of Mexico, some tankers operate with half that much water beneath them, he said.
Coast Guard officials Thursday left little doubt that the anchor was the chief suspected cause of the 3-foot-wide puncture in the ship's hull. Schmidt said that one of the ship's anchors was examined after the accident and found to have a bent shaft.
Company officials quoted the captain, A. R. (Robert) La Ware, as saying there were "no swells or anything like that" at the time that could account for the accident.
Company spokesmen said that to their knowledge the captain has never been involved in an accident. The Coast Guard, after checking its files in Washington, said La Ware's record was clean.
"Robert La Ware has been with our company 30 years and he's an extremely experienced master on the West Coast. He has put this ship and many others on moorings many, many times," said Mike Murphy, vice president of American Trading.
But the ship's history shows four accidents before Wednesday's spill, although records do not indicate who her captain was at those times. The previous incidents were described as minor by the Coast Guard and industry experts. No spills resulted.
According to Arthur McKenzie at the Tanker Advisory Center in New York, the incidents amounted to "serious fender benders."
He said the ship collided with a Texaco tanker in San Francisco Bay in December, although there was apparently no damage. It also collided with a ship at anchor in Bangladesh in April.
In September, 1986, it collided with the tanker H.J. Haynes in Long Beach, with damage to the two vessels totaling $239,000. The fourth was a minor "boiler incident at sea," McKenzie said.
He said his organization rates ships according to various factors, including safety, and has rated American Trader as average.
The company, in operation since 1972, has six ships that average 18 years of age. The ships have had 41 accidents over their lifetimes, which is not a good record, McKenzie said.
A "mooring master," the equivalent of a pilot, was on the bridge at the time of Wednesday's mooring maneuver, but it was uncertain whether he was in charge of the maneuver, said a spokesman for the refinery that operates the offshore mooring.
The spokesman identified the mooring master as John Keon, a self-employed pilot with "an excellent reputation" who has been working the Huntington Beach mooring for five years. He said the mooring had been offloading a little more than two ships a month.
Other pilots familiar with the Southern California coast said the maneuver was not particularly difficult for anyone familiar with the mooring. "It'd be hard if you didn't know what you were doing," said one Southern California pilot, "but for these guys who do it all the time, it's not tough.
"Ten or 12 feet under the keel, that's plenty," he said. "That's no problem. It's a puzzler why this happened."
A spokesman for Golden West Refining Co., the firm that operates the mooring, said the ship was preparing to maneuver into a 700-foot-wide, U-shaped cluster of seven mooring buoys where a 24-inch pipeline leading to shore would drain it of its load.
The process typically involves a ship cutting across the mouth of the U, laying one anchor, then another, then reversing its engines and swinging its stern into the mooring berth.
A tugboat was assisting in the operation, said John DeVries, manager of shipping and receiving for Golden West.
DeVries said the ship apparently had laid down one anchor and "had just dropped the second anchor when it happened."
He said the entire operation is slow and laborious, typically taking two or three hours.