Nothing can quite prepare the newcomer for the sight of hundreds of vessels afloat here in what might be the world's largest peacetime armada.
These vessels are the lifeline connecting Valdez with hundreds of small islands where workers are tackling the cleanup of almost 900 miles of shoreline that were smeared with the remnants of oil from the worst oil spill in U.S. history.All told, the combined complements of three military ships, including air pilots, public relations and other military personnel total almost 1,000 women and men, according to the joint federal information office in Valdez. An Exxon Corp. spokesman said upward of 700 civilian vessels operate daily to support both the cleanup effort and the thousands of workers doing the job.
"The figure changes from day to day," said Andy Purcell, the Exxon spokesman. "It may be 705 one day and 699 the next, but about 700 is consistent lately." Fishing boats make up the bulk of this ragtag fleet, working not with nets but with containment booms, hoses and absorbent pads.
Because of the support this armada provides, workers can live on the sound within a few miles of the oil-blackened beaches they scrub at the rate of a few feet each day. But the concentration and combination here of hundreds of vessels of all types defy original roles.
Starting with the single U.S. Coast Guard cutter Rush, the armada grew to include two U.S. Navy ships, several pleasure yachts, scores of landing craft, hundreds of working fishing boats, a nearly equal number of runabouts and inflatable skiffs and barges in ever-increasing numbers.
Workers live aboard vessels - eat and shower afloat. Each morning boats deliver the crews to the beaches, along with their equipment, medical, sanitary and food service support.
The Rush steamed into the sound March 25. Shortly thereafter, the USS Juneau and the USS Fort McHenry arrived on the scene. These two military vessels were dispatched to the area to act as berthing vessels for workers, as
airports for hundreds of daily helicopter flights and as docking platforms for barges serving as supply depots.
Exxon's clean-up contractor, Veco Corp., oversees the daily operations, while Exxon executives on the scene try to keep track of the inventory and daily use of the fishing boats, called "Mike boats" by the foremen and supervisors.
Few fishermen needed much coaxing to switch from netting fish to getting oil off the water and off the beaches, given the daily fees boat owners earn.
For example, Jim Leuey of Cordova, a fishing town on the Gulf of Alaska,
plans "to clean up every day until they shut down."
In contrast with what he says is his normal gross of about $140,000 each year, Mr. Leuey said he should almost triple that figure for 1989. "You figure it out; I'm a little dizzied by it," he continued. His 30-footer, the Zebra, brings him about $2,150 a day, so exceeding $400,000 seems readily possible.
There is no "normally paid" leasing fee for these boats, but many claimed that $3,000 a day for commercial fishing vessels wasn't uncommon. No word on how much the huge 500-foot-plus Bering Trader fetches for serving as a berthing vessel.
Cost notwithstanding, if Exxon couldn't secure the needed tonnage locally, it would have to find it some other way. The sheer expanse of the impacted area requires it. Two months after the spill, the cleaning sites closest to Valdez require a 30-minute to 40-minute helicopter or seaplane flight to reach.
And as workers clear beach after beach following the slick's southwest path to Kodiak Island, the distance from the Valdez operations base will increase. The operations run something like this: Workers are housed either aboard U.S. Navy ships such as the Juneau, the fish processing Bering Trader, or on one of several barges outfitted with temporary housing units.
Every morning, World War II-type landing craft and other boats run the workers to their assigned beaches, bring high-pressure pumps and water heaters, food, drink and first aid supplies.
Almost all material used in the shore scrubbing is available from the ''mother" or "berthing" vessel - items such as high-pressure hose, absorbent toweling, hard hats, rubber boots, anything used on the beach. The vessels supporting the self-powered pumps and heaters are usually landing craft or larger fishing boats.
At the end of the day, the landing craft and fishers run the workers back to their berthing vessels for decontamination - showers - any first aid or medical treatment, and the hot evening meal.
"We also keep a standby boat handy in case anybody falls into the water or gets wet," explained Richard Adams, a Veco supervisor at a beach cleanup operation on Elinore Island.
On this day in late May, the water temperature hovered around 42 degrees Fahrenheit, air temperature barely exceeded 50, and a cold drizzle fell.
"With these kinds of conditions, hypothermia is a major concern of ours, so we take anyone who gets wet, wrap them in dry clothes and put them immediately on a boat for the berthing vessel," he explained. There, they get a hot shower and a warm meal along with any other first aid they might need before coming back to work, according to the company.
But what appears as the status quo this week won't last long. With thousands of acres along about 875 miles of coastline to clean, the scope of the effort continues to expand.
Workers in Port Valdez were putting the finishing touches on two barges fitted with enough temporary housing for at least 200 workers. Those will be towed by tugboat out to new beach cleanup teams. Others are planned.
The Navy ships will remain on duty in Prince William Sound until they're urgently needed elsewhere or until the end of the scrubbing season, probably in October. And the civilian vessels and their owners will likely go home and enjoy the winter with less financial pressure than ever before.
"Until next spring, and we start scrubbing all over again," beamed Zebra skipper Jim Leuey. "This will be one fat winter," he effused. And if his and thousands of others' hopes come true, the season will pick up fresh in 1990.