By Anna Pulley
By Erin Sherbert
By Chris Roberts
By Erin Sherbert
By Rachel Swan
By Joe Eskenazi
By Erin Sherbert
By Erin Sherbert
It was 1:41 a.m. in the morning of Jan. 18, 1971, when two Standard Oil tankers smashed into each other 300 feet west of the Golden Gate Bridge, spilling 800,000 gallons of bunker fuel into the bay.
The ships -- Arizona Standard and Oregon Standard -- were sisters, each 523 feet long. Their captains, Morris English and Harry Parnell, were neighbors in Alameda. In the fog, English and Parnell didn't see each other until it was much too late. English, outbound on the Oregon Standard, had been navigating through the Golden Gate by the sound of the foghorn off Lime Point. His ears had brought him off course, to the starboard side of the traffic lanes in the deep water beneath the bridge. Parnell, inbound on the Arizona Standard and also to the right of where he should have been, told an investigating committee that when his ship sliced a 75-foot-wide slash into the side of the Oregon Standard, puncturing the barrels of bunker oil and spilling them into the sea, "it wasn't the tremendous blow you'd expect. In fact, it was rather soft."
Onshore that morning, in the cream-colored buildings of Fort Mason, a Coast Guard lieutenant named James MacDonald was watching the sister ships head toward each other on his radar screen. MacDonald was on duty as part of an experiment in maritime monitoring called Harbor Advisory Radar Project. Established the year before, in 1970, HARP was a voluntary link in an often-fragile communication system between ships, and between ship and shore. MacDonald tried to call the Oregon Standard to warn her about the approaching disaster, but he could not raise her on the radio. On board the doomed tanker, Capt. English had switched his radio off HARP's frequency.
In the aftermath of the accident, Congress passed the Bridge to Bridge Radiotelephone Act, which requires ships' captains to tune into the same radio channel. That same year, an advisory committee met in San Francisco to figure out how to make HARP permanent. And in the summer of 1972, Vessel Traffic Service San Francisco was born.
Next time you're driving west on the Bay Bridge, glance up just before you enter the Treasure Island tunnel. You'll see a building -- one story, pale-colored, blinds pulled against outside light -- surrounded by trees beneath a radar tower. That's VTS. Inside the building, in a light-blue room, are five radar screens, three televisions, and a radiotelephone system. Together, the equipment provides the United States Coast Guard with a complete overview of the bay.
"We're in direct communication with these vessels," VTS training coordinator Scott Humphrey is saying, on a mid-May morning, the radar screens in front of him making their sweeps. Two watch-standers -- a Coast Guard officer wearing a light-blue shirt, dark pants, black socks, and polished shoes, and a civilian in black jeans and a dark shirt -- sit with headsets on, moving little paper cards around on a ledge in front of the screens. Each card represents a ship, and its position on the ledge is a code of sorts, marking where the ship is at the moment in the water. The radar swirls clockwise around on the screens, a swath of spinning orange light. Unlike the way it is in the movies, these radars are silent. No blips, no bleeps. The only sound comes from the window, where the noise of cars passing on the bridge below resembles paper being torn slowly in half.
Last year, the VTS supervised more than 83,000 ship movements on the bay. That's counting tankers, freighters, ferries, cruise ships, Navy ships, tugs, and barges -- but not sailboats, motorboats, or fishing vessels, which aren't required to check in with Traffic. The VTS provides information to the vessels and reports their movements to others on the water. Traffic rarely, if ever, actually tells a ship what to do. "We have the right to direct them, but it's very rarely used," Cmdr. Dennis Sobeck, USCG, says. That's mainly because in 1980, when the VTS did step in and tell a vessel how to get back inside the gate, the ship ran up onto the rocks.
Up until very recently -- Oct. 13, 1994 -- ships in San Francisco weren't required to notify VTS of their arrival or departure. Before that date, all communication was voluntary. Even more recent -- May 3, 1995 -- are the established traffic lanes. Once tankers and freighters clear the straits of the Golden Gate, they must pick their way through shallow, rocky waters with swift currents and strong tides. On the city side of Alcatraz Island, the water is not deep enough to allow ships with drafts of 45 feet or more to pass safely. Those ships must all pass into the bay along the north side of Alcatraz, in what the Coast Guard has named the Deep Water Traffic Lane. "The DWTL is sufficiently narrow that meeting, crossing, and overtaking restrictions are necessary to reduce the likelihood of a collision," the May 3 rule states. Accordingly, if a ship in the deep water lane carries oil or another hazardous cargo, like anhydrous ammonia, then no other ship may enter the lane. Before the rule went into effect -- on the date, for example, that the Mundogas found herself out of control beneath the bridge -- those traffic lanes were mostly voluntary, too.