Famed West Coast Salvage Vessel May Sail Again

The Salvage Chief at work (date unknown, courtesy Fred Devine Salvage)

Published Feb 5, 2019 6:49 PM by The Maritime Executive

A non-profit group is seeking $1.9 million in funding from the Oregon legislature to bring a storied salvage vessel back to life. Over a 60-year career, the Salvage Chief conducted over 250 rescues, refloats and other interventions up and down the West Coast, including the removal of the Exxon Valdez from Bligh Reef. Today, her owner and members of her former crew would like to see her take on a new life as a training vessel. 

The Salvage Chief was created with a very specific purpose in mind. Groundings were all too common on the West Coast in the middle of the 20th century, and getting ships off the beach again was a challenging task. Portland-based entrepreneur Fred Devine came up with a solution: a heavy salvage tug with shallow draft to get close to shore.

After the Second World War came to a close, hundreds of shallow-draft LSTs - 200-foot tank landing craft with bow ramps - returned from the Pacific theater and were decommissioned. Most were scrapped, but Devine put the class' shallow hull form to a new use. In 1948, Divine bought one of these ships, LST-380. He paid for extensive modifications, including the installation of six surplus Almon Johnson winches, three on the bow for salvage anchors and three on the stern for pulling. When she dropped her anchors and took up the slack, the Salvage Chief was capable of developing more than 300 tons of line pull, equivalent to the towing force of three modern ASD tugs. 

The Salvage Chief's capabilities quickly set her apart, and she handled most of the major salvage operations on the Northwest coast for the next six decades. For the most famous - the salvage of the Exxon Valdez - the Salvage Chief was the primary salvage support vessel, and her team provided extensive diving and inspection services in preparation for the final refloat. The Chief also removed the wreckage of the tanker Sansinena after it exploded and burned at the Port of Los Angeles in 1976, and the wreck of the freighter New Carissa, which went aground off Coos Bay, Oregon in 1999. 

The Salvage Chief was retired from service in 2015, and she was purchased by Salvage Chief, LLC, a holding company based in Astoria. The firm relocated her to a pier at the Tongue Point Job Corps Center, a maritime training program near the mouth of the Columbia River, and with the backing of the non-profit Salvage Chief Foundation, she has been undergoing restoration ever since. With support from a senior member of the Oregon legislature, the group now hopes to secure $1.9 million in state funding to cover repair and inspection costs. A bill introduced by State Senator Brian Boquist would appropriate the funds needed to cover hull repairs, engine and fire pump upgrades and communications equipment. 

If fully restored and recertified, according to the foundation, the Salvage Chief could provide learning opportunities and sea time for Tongue Point's cadets. The Tongue Point center's maritime program trains entry-level seafarers with all of the basic qualifications to work as ABs or QMEDs, and in 2016 its enrollment doubled in size due to demand.