ABOARD THE RACCOON -- Every day, commercial and recreational vessels and mariners of all shapes, sizes and abilities ply the San Francisco Bay, often challenged by strong tides, rough winds and blinding fog.
On the water with them most days is Joe McCormick, captain of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers debris removal vessel, the M/V Raccoon, an 80-year-old refurbished Navy ship that is one of the oldest working commercial boats on the Bay. Since 1960, the vessel with its usual crew of six has been scouring the Bay and its tributaries ensuring that busy shipping lanes are clear of navigational hazards.
It's a task left entirely to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, one that is shared with the Raccoon's multi-purpose sister ship, the M/V John A. B. Dillard, Jr. It doesn't bother McCormick that the mission is something most Bay area residents are largely unaware of. "A lot of boaters know, but the general public doesn't," he said. "The reason why we're not in the news is because we're successful at completing our mission and preventing accidents."
On a recent July morning, the Raccoon and her crew set sail from their sleepy berth in Sausalito, Calif., and began a slow push through calm waters into the Bay, maneuvering past scores of commercial vessels, recreational boats and kayakers out enjoying a sunny, fogless day. All of them -- whether they knew it or not -- were relying on the Raccoon to spot and remove dangerous debris before they collided with it.
What's pulled from the water can include everything from stray logs and runoff from storms, to boats that are no longer seaworthy, as well as broken piers and dead animals -- even wind-blown objects that fall from vehicles crossing the Bay Bridge overhead. Anything in the federal shipping channels capable of disrupting safe sea traffic has to be removed. While the Bay generally sees less debris in summer, McCormick, who has captained the Raccoon for 20 years, says winter storms can bring a deluge.
"During the El Nino of 96 and 97, the Bay was inundated with debris and boats could not get in or out of pier 39 Marina, and shipping and ferry speeds were restricted. The debris fields were as large as football fields." The 1989 earthquake in the Bay Area triggered a similar avalanche of debris.
Nothing seems too large for the Raccoon to pluck from the water. The scavenger ship is equipped with an on-board crane that can lift objects weighing as much as 20 tons and like a basking shark with its mouth open, the 104-foot, twin diesel engine vessel deploys a net that gobbles up all debris that it encounters on the surface as it moves forward. "There's nothing this boat can't handle," said chief engineer Joe Rakstins.
The ship just returned to the job after spending five months in dry dock for routine maintenance. Even as she approaches age 80, Captain McCormick thinks the Raccoon still has a long life ahead of her. "The Raccoon will last for another 25 to 30 years of service."