, , ,


In 1790, the Spanish explorer Salvador Fidalgo, became the first European to navigate up the Gulf of Alaska and sail into the Prince William Sound, a 100 sq.km body of water that is punctured on all sides by a maze of fjords (the Americans call them inlets).

One of those inlets, the largest one, intrigued Fidalgo. Spellbound by the pristine natural beauty, he decided to check it out. He ventured in, gingerly tip-toeing his galleon up through an 800-meter wide channel into a tiny little oval bay just above the 60th parallel.

An experienced sailor, Fidalgo immediately sensed that the bay had all the characteristics of a first-class port. He had his men build a tiny settlement on one side of the bay and then, displaying the characteristics similar to that of an Indian Congress Party member, Fidalgo named the settlement Valdez, after his boss, the Spanish Navy Chief, Antonio Valdez.

Name anything after my boss? You have to be kidding me. I would have named it after a woman, maybe call it Scarlett’s Inlet, after Scarlett Johanssen. I have a yen for Scarlett Johanssen. She has her chatra chaya (Indian for ubiquitous presence) all over this august blog. But this is not about Scarlett Johanssen. Please, don’t waylay my brilliant mind. She troubles me enough as it is.

It is not known if Fidalgo got promoted to first mate for his ass-licking or not. Most likely he didn’t survive the voyage, even if he did get a couple of doubloons as a raise. Explorations those days were singularly one-way, with the chances of making it back – 80/20(against). Death could happen as a result of something as piddly as the flu. If as an explorer, you lived to be 50, it was an achievement.

A scam to lure prospectors away from the regular Klondike gold rush trail in the 1890s, led the tiny settlement that Fidalgo had founded a century earlier, to turn into a boom town, if only for a while. The scammers, some steamship tycoons, promoted the Valdez Glacier Trail as a better route for prospectors to reach the gold fields and discover new ones in the Copper River country of interior Alaska, than the existing trail through the narrow glaciated valley named Skagway in the Alaska panhandle, a hundred miles to the south-east.

The prospectors who believed the sales talk soon found that they had been deceived. The trail was twice as long and steep, as reported and many of them contracted scurvy (a severe vitamin-C deficiency) and perished during the long, cold and dark winter, without adequate supplies.

As expected, word spread and soon the town of Valdez went from boom to bust and began looking like the sister city to Tombstone when in 1867, the US purchased Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million. That is $250 million in 2014 dollars – even in present-day terms, a paltry sum. Talk about selling short. Hope Putin doesn’t demand it back. He and Sarah Palin could go polar bear hunting then.

For a century prior, early Russians had been noting oil seepages along the coast at Iniskin Bay and Cold Bay on the Alaska Peninsula, but they had made no attempt to do anything about the finds, not realizing the worth of the thick goo that bubbled up to the surface. The first oil claims were filed in the 1890s and the first well drilled in 1898.

Thereafter, the work of building infrastructure began. The Richardson Highway was constructed in 1899, connecting Valdez to another fast growing town called Fairbanks, a transportation hub that behaved somewhat like the Everest Base Camp, from where early prospectors would spread out into the interior. Fairbanks today is Alaska’s third largest city.

Discovery of massive oil reserves at Prudhoe Bay on the Beaufort Sea followed in the late 1960s. As production skyrocketed, it became necessary to build a pipeline and the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company happened. Built around 1974-77, the Alyeska Pipeline transports crude from the North Slope/Prudhoe Bay area, through an 800-mile long, 48-inch diameter pipe that traverses terrain that is unimaginably rugged, piercing through 5000-foot high mountain passes that are etched into the Brooks, Alaska and Chugach ranges, till it levels out at the Valdez Marine Terminal, where it unloads the crude into 18 enormous storage tanks, capable of holding 7.2 million barrels of crude at any given time.

Today, with a railhead, highway and its deep water, ice-free port, Valdez has established itself as the primary overland supply route from the interior of Alaska. Along with Valdez, the state of Alaska has prospered too, it’s cut from the supply of oil making it the only US state that has neither a personal income tax nor any sales tax.

Oil is not all there is, at this joint. Valdez is well known for a burgeoning tourism industry, with cruise ships berthing and disgorging folk visiting from as far as India, to take in the stark and pristine snowy slopes, frolicking sperm whales, Kodiak bears and caribou. I would like to drop in there but, at $15000 a pop minimum, I think sitting in my basement and making believe is just fine for now and saving up for my Lamborghini. Scarlett loves Lamborghinis. Ugh, there I go again. Scarlett, Scarlett, Scarlett. Sigh.

Although Valdez’s population has never exceeded 4000 souls, during a short period of a year starting March 1989, it reached 35,000.

This is the story of what caused the 1989 population explosion in Valdez……


Prince William Sound, March 1989 – Not the right time and place to be born a baby seal


Oil tankers come in different categories, based upon tonnage. You start with the handysize (20-30,000 DWT). Still larger, are the handymax (~ 45,000 DWT), and then you have the panamax (50-80,000 DWT). Aframax (80 – 120,000 DWT), are medium haul tankers, while the suezmax (120-180,000 DWT) are tankers that can manage to get through the Suez Canal without their keels scraping the bottom.

And then of course there are supertankers – the Very Large Crude Carriers(VLCCs, 180-320,000 DWT) and the Ultra Large Crude Carriers(ULCCs, 320-570,000 DWT. (DWT, by the way, stands for Dead Weight Tons. It is the sum of the weights of cargo, fuel, fresh water, ballast water, provisions, passengers and crew).

Usually, a VLCC or ULCC waits out at sea while smaller vessels, such as the handymax or panamax   tankers ferry the oil out to and from the supertanker. This is more cost effective than dredging the bloody sea bottom from open sea to the bloody terminal so that the bloody channel can accommodate the enormous 60-90-foot draft of these bloody behemoths. The waters at the bloody Valdez-Alyeska Oil Terminal and all the way out through to the Pacific are naturally bloody deep and therefore there is no necessity to transfer the bloody crude to the bloody handymaxes.

The Exxon Valdez was one such supertanker, a 1000-foot long, 215,000 DWT giant that fell into the VLCC category. Though a medium sized supertanker, it was still very large, approximately the size of a Nimitz-Class nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, it’s deck longer than three football fields and it’s two anchors weighing 15 tons each. All that hardware was operated by a crew of just 19 plus it’s skipper, Capt. Joe Hazelwood. They must have gotten awful lonesome in there.

The tanker’s run usually started at the Valdez Oil Terminal at Port Valdez in Alaska where it picked up 1.3 million barrels of North Slope crude and then sailed two thousand nautical miles down the Pacific coast and unloaded it’s cargo at Long Beach, California, bound for the Exxon refinery, situated in nearby Torrance. Except for the extremely tricky entry and exit through the Prince William Sound, this was a milk run.

The tanker had arrived at the terminal the previous day, March 22. It had been empty when it berthed. Well, not exactly. Tankers are never really empty, as they would then become top-heavy and tip over. Like Pierette, the salesgirl at the cafeteria counter where I work. Her CG is situated just below her neck, distributed evenly between two immense mountains that have tiny lighthouses on top. Had she not been endowed with an ample bottom too, Pierette would surely have tipped over. Likewise, tankers must be bottom-heavy at all times and so, when they’re not carrying oil, they carry water in ballast tanks instead.

The average tanker turnaround time at the Valdez Terminal is around 24 hours. Given the daily cost of operating a tanker like the Exxon Valdez, pegged at around $22000, the berthing, offloading ballast water, loading crude and de-berthing takes place non-stop. On the morning of March 23, the Exxon Valdez began loading crude on schedule, it’s massive Sulzer pumps gradually increasing the flow up to 100,000 barrels an hour by 5:30 a.m. At around 6pm that evening it would be filled to the brim.

By the time it set sail, the supertanker would have 53 million gallons (1.26 million barrels) of crude sloshing around in it’s 11 tanks. A barrel of oil (42gallons), when refined, produces roughly 19 gallons of gasoline, or 72 litres. Exxon Valdez had on her, the equivalent of 91 million litres of gas, enough to top up the tanks in 2 million cars. I love spewing cool math. Heh.

On the morning of March 23, while the massive pumps grumbled and swooshed, Capt. Hazelwood and two other officers went into town, where they spent most of the day conducting the ship’s business and shopping. They spent considerable time in at least two Valdez bars. Testimony indicated Hazelwood downed quite a few drinks late that afternoon. They were back on board by 8.30pm.

Shortly after 9, the Exxon Valdez slipped its last mooring line, while two tugboats began maneuvering it away from the wharf, much like two sophomores trying to urge the hulking high school quarterback onto the dance floor.  By the time the tanker was clear of the dock at 9:21 pm, the sun had already set an hour back.

Once it was a cable length away, the tugs began towing the massive supertanker, backward through the Valdez Narrows channel into the much broader Valdez Arm fjord. A supertanker needs a radius of around 8-10 kms to turn and face the other way and there isn’t enough space in the Port Valdez Bay with adequate depth to allow the Exxon Valdez a safe turnaround. That is why the backward tow.

While the Valdez Narrows is strictly one-way traffic for all vessels above 20000 DWT, the Valdez Arm fjord isn’t. For these massive vessels to transit the entire fjord safely there is an elaborate Traffic Separation Scheme (TSS) set in place by the NTSB, which does just that – separate the incoming and outgoing tankers in Prince William Sound and at the same time, ensure that they are always in clear and deep waters during their transit. The TSS consists of inbound and outbound lanes, with a half-mile-wide separation zone between them. Large, colored buoys equipped with powerful fog lights, as well as Inertial Navigation Systems, mark out these corridors quite clearly.

At the mouth of the fjord, the harbor pilot, a skilled mariner who guides incoming and outgoing ships to and from port, bade farewell and shinnied down a precarious 40-ft ladder till he finally let go and leapt nimbly onto a pilot boat that had appeared out of the dusk to take him back to shore. Immediately there was a perceptible change in the thrumming of the gigantic tanker’s single 32000 hp Wartsila Diesel engine as it came awake. Deep down below, it’s eight 1½-meter diameter pistons began their synchronized 2rpm dance and the tanker crept carefully forward, it’s bow pointing directly out toward the open waters of the Prince William Sound, with the Bligh Island at a distance to the left. Another six hours and the Exxon Valdez would be in the Pacific.

Small icebergs from the nearby Columbia Glacier occasionally enter the traffic lanes, especially during the spring thaw, when huge seracs come loose and tumble down into the waters, breaking up into bungalow or tractor-trailer sized pieces and bob up and down merrily. Hit hard, they might pierce a hull but, if pushed gently, they bob out of the way with an, “okay, okay, I’m goin’, no need ta be rude’.  Captains have the choice of slowing down to gently shove them aside and proceeding or jumping lanes if the traffic permits. Usually they decide to take a detour and that’s because slowing down a supertanker takes miles. An Exxon Valdez would need 8-10 kms to come to a complete halt.

Any deviation from the lane however, has to be cleared by the Valdez Traffic Center. Once cleared, it would mean that a tanker could leave the lane it was in, cross the separation zone and if necessary, enter the eastern, inbound lane to avoid the floating ice. These protocols have been normal and until the night of March 23, 1989, tankers had safely transited Prince William Sound more than 8,700 times, frequently jumping lanes, in the 12 years since oil began flowing through the Alyeska pipeline and so there was little reason to suspect impending disaster. The Valdez tanker traffic had had an unblemished, accident-free record till then, a record that was about to be shattered that night.

As the Exxon Valdez exited the Valdez Arm inlet, scattered icebergs were spotted by the tanker’s radar, that were large enough to make Hazelwood decide to take a detour in order to avoid hitting them when the tanker entered Prince William Sound.

(to be continued…)