FORT BRAGG, Calif. -- U.S. Army Corps of Engineers scuba divers and debris deck hands from the San Francisco District worked in tandem Jan. 25 to remove a 50-foot, 15 ton sunken ship stranded across half of the Noyo River impeding travel in the federal channel for fishing vessels, recreational boaters and U.S. Coast Guard ships navigating into the harbor.

The MV John A. B. Dillard, Jr., and crew teamed with the district's divers to remove the vessel under the authority of 33 U.S. Code, Chapter 9, Subsection 409 (Obstruction of navigable waters by vessels; floating timbers; marking and removal of sunken vessels.)

The harbor entryway, located along the Northern California coast in Mendocino County, is the second narrowest along the West Coast, which meanders up river into the forested hills to a parade of restaurants, retail outlets, fishing canneries, docks and the U.S. Coast Guard Noyo River Station.

USACE maintains 926 coastal, Great Lakes and inland harbors.

The deck hands and divers raised the "Jeanne" from a depth of 12 to 15 feet, pumped water from her cargo holds and towed the ship to the Coast Guard Station, before transferring control and custody of the ship to the Noyo Harbor District.

This was the first joint salvage operation for the two crews working in tandem.

Drew Rapp, a civil engineer technician with the district's survey branch, was the first diver to slip into the 48-degree river, placing eyes on the ship's underwater issues as dive and debris team leaders started employing vessel husbandry operations to recover the fiberglass-over-wood hulled "Jeanne" from blocking boats seeking safe passage in and out of the harbor.

Rotating at 30-minute intervals, the divers deployed airbags around the crippled ship, while the Dillard attached nylon straps and lifted the vessel with its 14,000-pound, pedestal-mounted grapple crane to stabilize the craft aided by the river's ebb, yet battling current surges topping a steady 1.5 knots.

Other divers included Derrick Dunlap, deputy chief for Operations and Readiness; Greg Cox, a civil engineer technician at Lake Sonoma; Erik Romani, an engineer working on the MV Raccoon Debris Vessel; and Josh Burkhead, a park ranger from Lake Sonoma.

As divers were having trouble fighting the current and towing the bags to an effective depth, Kixon Meyer, who captains the Dillard and served as the salvage master for the mission, came up with the quick fix of rolling the bags into a "burrito" to remove as much air as possible and eliminate the boxing match between diver and bag by minimizing the surface area the river could pound against the bags, while the divers strategically placed them to raise up and right the boat into a floatable position.

Kixon and his crew, Dan Denofrio and Ken Samples from the district's Base Yard; Ken Clark, mechanical engineer; Rick Curry, working as a deck hand and crane operator; and deck hands Steve Rohner and Mark Gibson, tightened ropes attached to the "Jeanne's" bow and stern to stabilize the boat.

With the boat right-side up, the team worked to raise the vessel high enough so that the river's water wouldn't flow into the cargo holds.

The mission's success was being measured in inches of water lapping onboard the ship and into the cargo holds.

"Up on one," Meyer said as he motioned to the crane operator with his fingers to inch the boat out of the water, its 15 tons carrying exponential water weight. "Out on two," he added to extend the crane horizontally to methodically increase its control on the vessel.

Slowly, with the river waning toward low tide while simultaneously lifting the water-logged boat until the cargo holds could breathe air on its own, two gas and one electric water pump were placed aboard to siphon water from deep inside the boat until it could float on its own

After pumping water out of its forward and rear cargo holds, the Dillard's crew lashed two string lines to the damaged vessel unable to float on its own. The 80-ton Dillard tucked the damaged ship close by as a big brother to a younger sibling and towed the ship to the Coast Guard Station.

While the ship was tied to the Dillard, floating as if mimicking seaworthiness with the aid of the crane, the "Jeanne" couldn't be placed on a trailer and removed from the river until Sunday morning as high tide rolled into the harbor.

Meyer removed the nylon straps and crane that held the ship afloat overnight.

"Release the spring lines … untie the stern but keep the bow line tight," Meyer said as the back of the 50-foot vessel which was moored in Noyo River mud drifted downstream and away from the Dillard.

"Now, release the bow, let the bow line go free," his orders from the balcony outside the bridge literally transferred control and custody of the former sunken ship to the Noyo Harbor District -- the organization which had requested the Corps' assistance.

"I think they did a great job getting the vessel to float, removing the hazard from the channel to provide safe passage for commercial fishing boats, recreational boaters and the Coast Guard, which is often called upon to quickly respond to distressed calls or perform emergency rescues," said Mike Dillabough, chief of the district's Operations and Readiness Division.

The Dillard was officially christened and launched June 25 at the Sausalito, Calif., Base Yard. The 80-ton multi-purpose vessel, named after Major Gen. John A.B. Dillard, Jr., who led USACE until being killed in action in South Vietnam, teams with the "Raccoon" and Grizzly" to keep navigation and shipping channels free of floating debris. The three vehicles combine to remove more than 1,200 tons of debris annually.

The San Francisco District Dive Team was created in June 2010 and is the Corps' only certified dive team on the West Coast.

Page last updated Fri February 1st, 2013 at 00:00