What can happen when an anchor doesn’t hold

It is not very often that an oil spill is attributed to a dragging anchor. Thank goodness. But when it does occur, the fallout is enormous – for the environment, for the local economy and for the fish and wildlife living in the contaminated area. The good news is, what is today does not have to be in the future.

The 2021 California oil spill

The investigation is still under way and the verdict remains to be made but based on what is known at the time of writing this blog, it is most likely that a dragging anchor led to the oil spill off of the coast of Orange County, California this month. It is estimated a maximum of 144’000 gallons (654’634 liters) of crude oil was spewed into the ocean covering a surface approximately 1-2x the size of New York’s central park.

Investigators for the U.S. Coast Guard so far have determined that the underwater oil pipeline was likely struck by a large ship’s anchor. But this hit likely happened several months to even a year before it was discovered on Oct. 1.

Which leads to the next theory under scrutiny, it may have been multiple ship’s anchors which hit the pipeline cracking its concrete casing over the longer timeline.

“The pipeline has essentially been pulled like a bow string,” said Martyn Willsher, the Amplify Energy CEO owning the pipeline. “And so at its widest point, it is about 105 feet away from where it was. So, it is kind of in almost a semicircle.”

Two things are clear – there were heavy forces involved and the investigation will take still months if not years to resolve due to its complexity.

An Associated Press review of more than 10’000 reports submitted to federal regulators concerning the link between anchor dragging and oil spills “found at least 17 accidents on pipelines carrying crude oil or other hazardous liquids have been linked to anchor strikes or suspected anchor strikes since 1986.”

Moving a 30-ton anchor

Anchors come in all shapes and sizes, depending on the size of a boat. For a smaller sized leisure boat measuring 5m, a +/-2kg anchor will suffice. When you move to the other spectrum with commercial and container ships, the anchor can weigh +/-30 tons. One unfamiliar with the art of anchoring, may indeed wonder how an object of that size can be dragged over hundreds of meters before any action by captain or crew is taken. For a myriad of reasons of course, some human and others technical, but there will always be issues of changing winds (incl. storms), changing tides and unexpected changing currents. The fact of the matter remains, no matter how good the intentions or know-how of a crew, it is still not possible today for the crew to know if, by how much and how fast, the anchor is dragging in real-time. Current anchor alarms only provide indications with a high degree of uncertainty, and they often raise the alarm too late (if at all) for the crew to be able to avoid accidents. This means, anchors will continue to drag leading to collisions, groundings, damaged pipelines, and/or oil spills. Which brings us back to California.

How we work towards a healthier ocean

Could it have been avoided? The answer is complicated and I am certainly in no position to provide an adequate conclusion, I’ll leave that up to the investigative board. But there is one thing I am sure of: AnchorGuardian is moving us all one step closer to a world of safe anchoring. We at Swiss Ocean Tech will continue to do our best to work towards a world which respects nature and supports those who enjoy spending their time enveloped by the beauties our oceans have to offer. We do this for ourselves, we do this for our children and we do this because we recognize our responsibility to honor and protect the oceans in all we do. Want to join us in that cause?

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