Derelict vessel catches fire and sinks in Whidbey Island’s Penn Cove

Ian Jefferds was nervous about the decrepit, 128-foot crab boat from the moment it was towed into the midst of the rich shellfish beds of Whidbey Island’s Penn Cove on Christmas Eve.

The boat was listing and had no propulsion of its own. It was large enough that Jefferds, co-owner of Penn Cove Shellfish, feared the vessel, the Deep Sea, might slip its mooring and swing into his company’s mussel rafts or even the Coupeville dock.

“Everybody in our company and around here saw this as a potential problem from the get-go,” Jefferds said Tuesday.

Nearly five months later, the Deep Sea did worse than Jefferds had feared. It has spewed a 1 ½-mile-long diesel sheen after catching fire and sinking to the bottom of the 60-foot-deep cove Sunday, about one-quarter mile from the mussel farm.

Despite efforts to contain the sheen, state health regulators on Tuesday closed Penn Cove to commercial and tribal harvests of the prized mussels. Jefferds estimates his company lost $50,000 in one day; the total loss depends on pending toxicity tests.

The man-made debacle has state regulators defending their handling of the derelict vessel. The Department of Natural Resources (DNR), which manages state ownership of the seabed where the Deep Sea was anchored, has issued nearly $5,000 in fines to the Deep Sea’s owner since mid-March, for trespass violations.

But the agency did not have the vessel towed out of the ecologically sensitive cove, as it has the power to do, and as Jefferds had requested.

“The question is, tow it where, and what cost? Who is going to take a boat that size and in that condition? And who would pay for that?” DNR spokeswoman Toni Droscher asked.

Rory Westmoreland, 49, of Renton, bought the Deep Sea from the Port of Seattle in November for $2,500, according to state records.

Westmoreland could not be reached for comment, but he told the Whidbey Examiner in March that he owned a Renton scrap yard and envisioned using the Deep Sea to scavenge for recyclable materials. The state fines, and costs to repair the vessel, altered his plans.

“I still wish I could do something with it,” he told the Examiner. “I hate to give up the boat. It has a lot of potential.”

The FV Deep Sea, built in Tacoma in 1947, was celebrated on its maiden voyage in a Time magazine story. It was described in The Seattle Times as the “first American vessel built to process and pack frozen fish at sea,” while dragging trawl nets for king crab from waters as far as the Siberian coast.

How it came to be sold by the Port of Seattle is unclear. The Deep Sea appeared on DNR’s list of abandoned or derelict vessels, but its listed location was the Port-owned Fisherman’s Terminal.

Droscher said the boat appears to have been sold via a broker after it was not purchased at an auction. The Port of Seattle did not return a call late Tuesday.

The Deep Sea caught fire late Saturday. Despite efforts by the Coast Guard and a local fire district, it sank at about 6 p.m. Sunday.

Westmoreland later told authorities it had held between 60 and 100 gallons of diesel fuel, according to the state Department of Ecology. Containment booms, in three concentric rings, were placed in a relatively small area above the sunken vessel.

By Tuesday, though, the Coast Guard reported more than 2,100 gallons were recovered, and the diesel plume had escaped containment. Divers reported 1 or 2 gallons of fuel leaking per minute before a rupture was plugged. More fuel still could be aboard, Droscher said.

The Coast Guard, unable to persuade Westmoreland to pay for spill containment, tapped a contingency fund to hire skimmers and a Ballard marine-salvage firm. A spokesman said the Coast Guard will bill Westmoreland for costs, estimated to be well into six figures.

State and federal environmental fines, as well as potential criminal charges, also are possible. State and federal authorities planned to meet Wednesday.

Mark Toy, an environmental engineer for the state Department of Ecology, said shellfish would be tested for both taste and toxicity before Penn Cove could reopen to harvesting.

“I don’t know how someone would take a vessel into an area like that,” Toy said.

Droscher, of DNR, said her agency had contacted Westmoreland about two dozen times since the Deep Sea first was anchored in Penn Cove. Westmoreland told DNR that he’d planned to tow the boat to Port Townsend in August, but DNR found no evidence to support those plans, Droscher said.

Westmoreland also claimed at one point to have sold the vessel, delivering a handwritten bill of sale to DNR, she said.

But DNR contacted the potential buyer, who said he had backed out, and DNR found no record that the title was ever transferred.

Jefferds, of Penn Cove Shellfish, said he believes harvests will be down for up to two weeks, a blow to one of the largest private employers on Whidbey Island. Some of the 63 employees have been shifted to the company’s Quilcene operation in Jefferson County.

What Jefferds fears most are the words “toxicity” and “Penn Cove mussels” in the same news story.

“It’s taken 30 years to build up a brand based on good, clean water,” he said. “Now we have to make sure we tell our customers we’re cleaning it up, and the product hasn’t been contaminated.

Story sourced from

Contact Information