Chevron Mississippi: a tanker’s final trip

Every ship has a birth and a death and, in between the two, a history, running from the keel-laying through to its demise, whether in a scrapyard, or perhaps, less fortunately, in a casualty. This is the story of the recent, final voyage of another proud U.S.-flag vessel, made obsolete by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990.

The history of Chevron Mississippi began on Jan. 1, 1971, when the keel was laid in the Bethlehem Steel Shipyard at Sparrows Point, Md. It was one of six tankers in a class all their own. Designed as 70,000-dwt vessels, the propulsion was a 20,000-shaft horsepower steam turbine — strong, simple and dependable. Most of Chevron Mississippi’s life would be spent running into and out of the Gulf of Alaska, a body of water known for its winter storms and fall storms and spring storms an … well, let’s just say it was a tough old ship.

But after 29 years of continuous service, the single-hull design would make it an anachronism, which the law would no longer allow to sail the waters of the United States. The final voyage would be voyage 1002, picking up another load in Alaska for the West Coast. On departure from the Alyeska Terminal, where the vessel had completed 423 loadings, the shore saluted with its whistle. The escort tugs and assists tugs — and there are lots of them there — sent Chevron Mississippi off with their fire monitors spraying on full-stream patterns, the cold water turning to snow before it once again reached the placid waters of Valdez Arm.

Once it had completed its final discharge on the West Coast and put ashore a few tons worth of spare equipment for the other ships left in the fleet, Chevron Mississippi sailed one last time from its home port. Once again, the vessel was escorted. As it passed beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, its whistle sounded three long blasts and one short in a final farewell.

The final passage would take it south to the Panama Canal and then on to the Gulf Coast, where the cutter’s torch awaited the vessel in a scrapyard. Onboard were several extra crewmen to assist in the final cleanup, a long, dirty and arduous process requiring close attention to safety. The Butterworthing (cleaning) of the tanks &mdash with portable hoses and machines &mdash would begin the very next morning.

As the ship began its trip south, the chief mate put on some extra trim to aid in the tank-stripping and, along with the extra chief mate and the two bosuns, divided up the roster into two teams to allow for round-the-clock operations.

Image Credit: David Bivin
No longer legal for transporting oil in the era of the double-hulled tanker, Chevron Mississippi approaches Thatcher Ferry Bridge at the Pacific end of the Panama Canal while on its way to the Brownsville, Texas, scrapyard.

Daily safety and “tanktop” safety meetings were the order of the day &mdash and night &mdash as the teams went out to do their work. By the time Chevron Mississippi reached Panama, the Butterworthing was complete, and the men were half beat. But the real challenge, the mucking, would begin after the transit of the canal.

The crew had a two-day respite in Panama, one day at anchor and one day in the transit. It was late in the rainy season on the isthmus, and the late-season southerly storms were in the area. In spite of heavy rains during the day at anchor, 23 of the 30 crewmembers were able to take advantage of the launch service to go ashore and explore Panama City.

The day of the transit dawned bright, blue and sunny with high clouds overhead. The pilot was aboard, the anchor aweigh and the vessel in the channel by 0700. For many of the crew, it was their first trip through the Big Ditch, and they lined the rails of the flying bridge for a good part of the transit. A few of the younger sailors took pride in their first trick at the wheel in the canal. Mother Nature smiled and only allowed a heavy rain to fall on the ship while it waited at anchor for an hour in Gatun Lake. By 1800 it was passing north out of the Cristobal Breakwater, and as the darkness fell, the mate and the deck gang were anticipating the start of the mucking in the pre-dawn hours.

The old vessel continued north and west across the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico under favorable weather as the deck gang spent their days getting dirty, sending up bucket after bucket of residual sand and oil from the dark, labyrinthian depths of the cargo tanks. By the end of each day, as the sun went down and the barbecue fired up, they had had enough of the heat and humidity. They looked forward to a predicted cold front to help the temperature and humidity go down.

But it would not arrive before the ship reached its anchorage off Brownsville, Texas, and its scrapyard. The ship lay at anchor for nine days waiting for the breakers to finish off the previous vessel and make room for the old ship in the trench. During that time, the crew finished the mucking, and the steward’s stores began to dwindle. Thankfully, a few hours were available ashore for some of the crew, thanks to the local launch service that was able to come out when the weather allowed.

The mate had taken out much more than the normal ballast for the final passage into the scrapyard, and the 810-foot ship now rode high in the water with a forward draft of 6 feet and an after draft of 22, the depths requested by the breakers for the optimum slide up into the mud. The fateful day and time arrived as a pilot and trainee boarded for the inbound passage, 10 miles up a channel to the final resting place. Never ones to shirk their responsibility, the turbines wound up to a solid maneuvering full-ahead bell as the run for the jetties was started.

The pilot had called for extra tugs, as the ship was the largest vessel yet put into the scrapyard slip, and the weather had been threatening higher-than-normal winds. The tugs escorted us down the channel to the harbor, where three more harbor tugs waited to assist us in our turn from the narrow channel into the trench, a term which seems best to describe the final resting places prepared by the breakers.

The trenches are dug at an angle of about 60� from the axis of the channel and consist of a slip approximately 150 to 200 feet wide with shallowing depths for a distance of about 1,000 feet.

The sun fell lower in the afternoon sky as the ship approached its trench. Chevron Mississippi’s days were ending just as surely as the day was darkening. The crew still stood to their mooring stations with all of the professionalism they had always possessed, but for some, the old-timers especially, there was a growing lump in the throat.

The pilot turned the ship smartly in the channel and nudged its nose into the slip, then allowed me to drive the rest of the way into the trench. Increasing bells were called for until we were maneuvering full-ahead, and the water of the slip began running aft past the hull as the ship displaced it from the slip, and the prop sucked it out. When it stopped about 200 feet short of the spot, the pilot, who had previous experience in the operation, suggested that I give it hard rudder from left to right. This done, the ship started to shimmy its way once again up into the mud the final length. And then, at last, it was there, never to move again. Stopped fast, never to surge or yaw or roll or feel the trade winds or the winter storms. Just aground, buried, in the mud.

After a few mooring lines had been passed from the shore, the telegraph was rung off to Finished With Engines one last time. The engineers began to secure the steam plant.

The sun had set in the western sky. Once the accommodation ladder was settled, the yard and company representatives came aboard, and the paperwork officially turning it over to the yard was quickly signed by both parties. The ship was theirs. The vans arrived to start taking the crew to a hotel. I finally figured it was time for me to pack as well.

After everyone else had made it ashore, the engineers, the mate, the company rep and I gathered in the crew’s mess for a moment of reflection and refreshment after the long day and the voyage. So many had sailed this ship; so many miles had passed beneath its keel. There were uncounted stories that could have been told. But in the end, it had carried cargo to the refineries and had been a home and a shelter for many men and women for 29 years, and now it was time for it to go, although it still felt strong and able and willing.

While the rest of us waited at the gangway, the first engineer shut down the emergency diesel, leaving it lined up for the yard to use the next day. The lights on deck went out, and except for the lights from the drill rig yard across the channel, it was dark on deck. I don’t think there was a light heart among us or a throat that was not choked up as we went down the accommodation ladder that night.

As I stepped from the ladder to the shore, I tapped it one last time, “Good-bye, old paint.” The old ship, and all of those who had walked its decks, had served well all the way to the bitter end of the line. n

David Bivin is currently master of the 600-foot tanker Chevron Washington.

By Ocean Navigator