Tending the Milos Reefer

by Pat Glesner





“You have to go out,” my grandfather said, “but you don’t have to come back.”  It was an old Lifesaver adage; a tradition that the modern Coast Guard later began to downplay. You don’t have to go out, they would say, unless you have a reasonable expectation of coming back. No one would ever suggest that you had to be home for the holidays, though.

 In early November of 1989 we aboard Midgett expected to spend the next three months tied up at home. It was a rest most of us thought we deserved, after three months in the frigid, storm-tossed Bering Sea, patrolling the contiguous fishing zones. We had counted thousands of fish, made a couple of busts, and participated in ten SAR missions, a number equal to all Midgett had preformed in the previous two years. The only reprise had been four days in Adak.

Many of our loved ones had also weathered a storm during the cruise, the big shaker of ‘89, and although it had spared everyone’s family and property, many of us were still anxious to test our mettle on the earthquake devastated Barbary Coast.  

Spirits and hopes ran high then, on the 15th of November, as we cruised along, three days out of San Francisco and just a few hours away from chopping out of the 17th District.

Every ship has a pulse, and suddenly our's quickened, as the gravel-throated throb of diesels became the sheer whine of turbines. The ship heeled over sharply and you did not need a compass to know we were again headed north.

Scuttlebutt soon became fact. A 500' refrigerated cargo ship had run aground in Alaskan waters, and the Coast Guard wanted a helicopter capable High Endurance Cutter to act as on scene commander. We were not only still under control of the 17th District and closest to the scene, we were also the only fully operation 378' on the west coast. Jarvis had broken down and all the other 378' cutters were either in FRAM (Fleet Renovation and Modernization) or had just come out and were going through extensive, post-FRAM  retrofits and shakedowns. The Coast Guard was still smarting from negative publicity during the Exxon Valdez grounding, and that also added urgency to the mission.

And so we raced north at flank speed, stopping for six hours in Kodiak, where we re-fueled, took on stores and the helicopter, and embarked several passengers, including an Alaskan State environmental agent, the Executive Officer of the Coast Guard's Marine Safety Office in Anchorage, most of the Coast  Guard's Pollution Response Team, as well as a marine salvage expert from London Off-Shore Consultants, Limited.  

As they dispersed these people into empty racks throughout the ship, I found a cheerful, fifty-some-year-old, roly-poly man of ruddy complexion and unruly red hair stowing his gear in my room's upper berth. Even before he introduced himself his accent gave him away: I was obviously bunking with the salvor from London, Mr. Ian McDonald. (All names changed to protect the innocent, or prevent litigation.)

A friendly, talkative old salt, face and character weathered by "thirty year on the great brine, man and boy of me," as he unpacked his meager baggage, he explained his quest for the "West of England Club," marine underwriters--not an insurance company, he insisted, but rather an "exclusive association of ocean merchants, bonded for mutual benefit." During the next few days I would get to know him well, as I listened to his vast repertoire of sea stories. To hear them, you'd have to believe there wasn't a ocean he hadn't sailed, no port from which he had not weighed anchor. He had gone to sea at 16 as a cabin boy and had progressed through the ranks of the British merchant service until he was senior captain of his fleet. On the day he retired they promoted him to admiral. First and only time I’ve ever bunked with an admiral.

A little later I met the other civilian player. Except for being clean shaven, Bryson Twidwell resembled the majority of the Alaskans that came aboard Midgett (Fish Cops et al). Stocky, hatchet-jawed, disheveled, with blond shoulder length hair long overdue for a trim, he looked like a cross between a lumberjack and a middle aged hippie. With a perpetual smile pasted on his otherwise blank, droop eyed face, he impressed me as almost dim witted--or an active proponent of Alaska’s liberal marijuana laws. But this notion vaporized as soon as he opened his mouth. He was articulate and intelligent, with a store of knowledge that went well beyond Alaskan wildlife and its habitat, areas in which he was obviously an expert.    

With our guests settled, we steamed out of Kodiak on "birds" and made best speed north. Prodding along in our wake was the cutter Firebush, an old workhorse better suited for the mission. Aboard her she carried generators, pumps, dracones and towing hawsers--tools of the salvage trade--as well as the divers we might need for an underwater survey. If anything was to done, Firebush would do it.    

Nearing the Pribilofs, we were diverted for search and rescue. This time we were searching for a 22 year old Washington State man who had fallen off the trawler Flying Cloud. Since his only protective clothing was a slicker, the possibility of finding him alive was extremely remote--in those waters survival time is measured in minutes. Still, we searched for several hours, to no avail.    

And so we gave up and steamed north again, catching our first glimpse of the wreck Monday morning, 20 November 1989: there she sat hard aground on the rocks off "Glory of Russia Cape" on the northern tip of Matthew Island, the Greek cargo ship, Milos Reefer.    

Driven ashore by twenty foot seas and sixty to seventy knot winds, from a distance she looked like a old rusted hulk. But as we drew closer we could see that she was actually in pretty good shape, and that the first illusion was only the result of the oil from her holed fuel tank being blown back against her spar colored sides. She was abandoned of course, her crew rescued by a Polish vessel, the Waszuby.    

Seemingly familiar scenery stretched out south of the wreck: with their sheer black cliffs and rugged snow-covered mountains, St. Matthew and its neighbor Hall Island reminded me of Antarctic's Elephant Island. One offshore pinnacle even shared the same name. All the scene lacked was icebergs. Both islands are part of the Bering Sea National Wildlife Refuge. Walruses in particular called this home, and we spotted several pods along the rocky shore, as well as one dead bull rolling in the surf. Under Federal protection for decades, abound with rookeries but with no human inhabitants, there is supposedly ivory for the taking along St. Matthew's beaches. But when I casually asked if I might possible harvest some (since the walruses had no further use for it,) Bryson snapped his eyes open, fixed me with a stern, warning look, and began to lecture me on the moral impropriety and the legal consequences of possessing raw ivory ... when it came to his job, he apparently had no sense of humor.   

This area lies above the 60th parallel, within a day's sail of the Arctic Circle. Naturally it was cold and windy and the seas were rough: working in subfreezing temperatures, our survey teams, boat crews and deck hands invariably returned covered with ice, even if they'd only been outside a few minutes. Then there was the pack-ice, which edged closer each day ... and the Midgett is no icebreaker.    

"I can get her off," Ian told me after boarding the Milos Reefer, "but the weather's too damned unpredictable this time of year, and I'm not going to risk me bleedin' arse for a couple of bloody cases of Johnny Walker" (the ship's only remaining cargo.) Unfortunately, the only probable options seemed to be salvage it then or never. By spring the winter's storms would almost surely tear the vessel apart. And if it broke up as it sat then, we'd surely have the oil spill we're trying to prevent. There is also another concern: if they were aboard, rats might swim ashore and wreak havoc with the native wildlife.   

Burn it and abandon it, using the oil on board to fuel the fire was one option, the one Bryson preferred, as it would take care of rats as well as oil. Ian preferred to pump out the oil, hope the ship lasted the winter, and then salvage it in the spring. Both seemed like reasonable ideas, but neither man had much interest in compromise.    

On the second day on scene, in the midst of this bickering, the seas kicked up so badly that we moved over to the lee side of the St. Matthew, away from the wreck. The same storm, which hit earlier in the south, forced the Firebush into Dutch Harbor. And so we sat alone, biding our time, waiting for someone to make a decision.    

It only got worse as the days progressed: the wind picked up to gale force while instantly freezing sea spray covered our decks and encrusted our superstructure, not only making for hazardous conditions topside, but also shifting our center of gravity, making us even more susceptible to the actions of wind and waves. To minimize this we moved from anchorage to anchorage, trying to find the best lee. And still it raged.    

And as it raged, as we tossed and rolled and ice crept down, as stores dwindled and Thanksgiving came and went, and as the prospect of spending Christmas here loomed, the only comfort became the thought that Santa wouldn't have to travel far to reach us.    

Finally it became obvious that the storm wasn't going to let up soon, and that something had to be done, even if it was only to give up and go home. Going home was certainly out of the question. And so a Coast Guard cargo plane braved furious skies to air drop the parts that were supposed to fix our helicopter (they didn't), while the Firebush battered her way out of Dutch Harbor and into 30 foot seas, turning for 15 knots through the water, but only making 4.5 over ground (and 9.5 up and down, we were told). 

While we awaited the Firebush, the burn it vice save it factions continued to argue, and it seemed the only way we could break the impasse was to get both men aboard the Milos Reefer again--Bryson to check for vermin, Ian to sound the fuel tanks and then to force a decision based on their findings ... either that or let them settle their differences with horse pistols at 15 paces.    

But still the storm raged, outside, and as long as it did, the one inside raged too. And as if there wasn't enough to discuss, enough unresolved, Bryson decided we should bring aboard the dead walrus we'd spotted earlier. "We must do an autopsy to see what killed it," he explained, expecting, and hoping it would be oil. Opposition to this demand was almost unanimous, with the Ops Boss speaking for the majority: "Just moving a beast that size would be difficult, what we'd do with him once we got him aboard presents another problem; as empty as they are, there's still no room in our freezers for a twelve foot-long, three-ton sausage."  ("I'm glad there isn't a dead whale around here," Ian added.)   

I was one of the few to side with Bryson: "Why are we worried about freezer space up here?  Just put him on the fantail. And since those freezers almost empty, we may also want to put him on the menu."  It was meant to be humorous, so my faith in our leadership declined somewhat when the Captain took this facetious muttering as a mark of great wisdom and thereafter invited me to participate in his daily "strategy meetings."    

Meanwhile, on 26 November, those who had been among the initial participants in this drama once again entered the scene, giving us an opportunity to vent some of our frustration. The Waszuby was back, looking for shelter in the same lee that protected us. Her anchor had barely touched bottom before the cry "away the boarding party" went up on Midgett. Our primary intent in boarding her, so the official word stated, was to interview her crew so we could get a clearer picture of what happened off Gloria of Russia Cape two weeks before. However, being the professionals they were, our boarding parties never passed up the chance to count fish: although it seemed totally incomprehensible to those who viewed the evidence of their hasty retreat, there was still some suspicion that the Milos Reefer might have gone ashore with a cargo of ill-gotten fish. If this had been so, then our boarding proved (more or less) that the cargo had not been transferred to the Waszuby.    

The Firebush staggered in two days later, so battered that it took them two more days just to recover. By then the worst of the storm had passed, and although it was a long way from being calm, the seas had settled down enough so that we thought we might be able to get a party aboard the wreck. There was some risk, but it was likely to get even more dangerous if we waited; the forecast predicted at best a three day respite before the next blow.    

Despite the risk, there was no shortage of volunteers. In fact the only one to specifically decline was Bryson--he who had spent so much time criticizing our lack of progress (or better put, our reluctance to immediately implement his plans), now seemed to have little further interest in pursuing the mission. Even his interest in the wildlife seemed to have died, as had his interest in the fishing in these waters which he had earlier proclaimed as "the best in the world."  He now seemed satisfied sitting around watching old movies.    

There was an undercurrent of hostility aboard the Midgett  that I had not been aware of before. The representatives from the State of Alaska and the our resident Marine Safety officer had treated each other civilly at first, but there were apparently ill-feelings, an extension of the well-known animosity between the state and the Coast Guard over the handling of the Exxon Valdez incident. Bryson's sudden disinterest seemed to bring forth this suppressed hostility.    

At the beginning of this operation, Commander Bill Morani, the XO of the Marine Safety Office, took up residence in my shop. A Philsbury Doughboy of a man with close chopped salt and pepper hair and an olive, Mediterranean complexion, he spent most of his days parked up against the work bench, puffing on a briar pipe, scribbling on a yellow legal pad. I assumed he preferred the intellectual atmosphere in my shop over the juvenile patter in the wardroom. Now I saw this was not so: he just wanted to stay as far away from the state agent as he could. When Bryson divorced himself from the operation, Morani's face grew a little darker as he began an angry, incessant mumbling: "we should take the S.O.B. over and let him check out his precious walruses, and then arrest the bastard for disturbing a federal wildlife sanctuary ... burn it, he says ... it's still pollution, we'd just betaking it out of one pocket and putting it in another ..."  His was far from being the only angry voice.    

With the lull, we began to work in earnest. At first light, 11AM, 30 November, both Midgett and Firebush put their boats over and began ferrying working parties over to the wreck. In between they sounded the still uncharted waters to the east of the island.    

Aboard the Milos Reefer men surveyed the ship in and out, checking voids and tanks, measuring the amount of fuel still aboard, inventorying supplies, equipment and cargo, checking for rats (they found no signs), and determining exactly how she sat on the rocks. This last was accomplished by civilian divers who had come up with the Firebush, men who's physical appearance Ian pretty accurately characterized: "The Wild Man of Borneo and a rotund Rasputin."  I was put more in mind of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers.    

Although the movement of the ship told us it was probably not too hard aground, the underwater survey told us exactly how it rested: the floor of the peak tank had been smashed up into a dome about eight feet in diameter, apparently from pitching down on top of a boulder, upon which it still rested. This was where the ship was most firmly held. The rest of the keel sat rather lightly atop a rocky ridge.    

While the divers were determining this, the mission came closest to disaster. As one of them checked its position against the rocks, the ship heeled over, pinning him to the bottom. A compressor was quickly rigged to keep him breathing, but fortunately he did not need it. About ten minutes later the ship rolled back enough so that he was able to release himself. But thereafter, we were so shaken by this close call that we halted that portion of the survey.    

At the strategy meeting that night, we developed a plan: flood the peak tank, to anchor the ship more firmly to the bottom, take off our gear, and salvage whatever else we could. The oil would have to wait for someone else. The generator we needed to run the fuel pumps had been damaged during Firebush's transit. If we could do all this, the Good Lord and the Commandant willing, we would go home.    

"Go home?"  Bryson's eyes popped open again, "but the state wants a rep here until all salvage is complete."    

"No problem," the Captain said, "we'll provide you with a blanket and cot. There's plenty of room on the wreck. Set yourself up anywhere you like."    

Successful completion of the plan depended upon one more day of reasonable weather; however, things did not look promising, for the winds were already picking up again. The helicopter could work in rougher weather, weather that would keep our small boats cradled, but of course the helo was down. "What we need is the gear my grandfather used," I said, only half in jest, "a Breeches Buoy!"  All agreed that it was a good idea, but confessed that "we no longer have the technology."    

So the next day they air dropped more parts for the helicopter. Both canisters inadvertently landed on the ship, the first crashing into the flying bridge, tearing off one of the transmitter antennas, the parachute and shrouds from the second entangled the air search Radar antenna. This gave my ET's something to do, but the parts still didn't fix the helicopter.    

But with everyone anxious to go home, we once again had no shortage of volunteers, ready to challenge ever mounting waves. By 4PM, 1 December, we had done all we felt capable of. Ian was one of the last to climb off the wreck, having ferried back ahead of him a sextant, two cartons of cigarettes, a bottle of Dom Perignon-82, and (having embarked aboard Midgett with little more than the shirt on his back), a canvas bag packed with fresh clothing. "I hate running schooner rigged," he said, "now I've got a full kit."    

The champagne, the only thing the owner specifically asked Ian to save, carried an additional label: "Valiant Reefer Good Luck Charm to be kept aboard, unopened, until the ship is sent to the breaker's yard" ... Not much luck there.    

After a miraculous fix the next morning, just as we got within range of Kodiak, the aviators finally got it up. I was surprised they still remembered how to fly. The rest of our guests also soon depart, Bryson off to commune with nature near his wilderness cabin, somewhere north of Homer, the Pollution Response Team back to San Francisco, Commander Morani to his office in Anchorage, and Ian to his stateside base of operations in Houston, where, he told me, his first order of business was to "find a nubile maiden to restore my jovial self."   As for the Midgett, she did make it home in time for Christmas.

So that's how Midgett's fall `89 ALPAT (Alaska Patrol) became"HELL-PAT `89."   


UPDATE:  Our survey of the Milos Reefer determined the 237,000 gallons of the 350,000 gallons it carried spilled at the time of the grounding. Efforts to remove the remaining oil from the ship in the summer of 1990 were abandoned because of safety concerns and the remoteness of the site. During the ensuing years stormy weather and rough seas broke the ship into two pieces. In 1998 an oil sheen was spotted near the wreck; however, surveillance since then has shown no sign of damage to wildlife or fish.


Return To Coast Guard Stories