VIDEO: Old tug exhumed from watery grave

VIDEO: Old tug exhumed from watery grave

Michele Ellson

Video by Michele Ellson.

According to local legend, the “Captain Al” settled into her watery grave sometime in the 1990s, sinking to the bottom of the Oakland/Alameda Estuary as her unknown owner was preparing to rend her for scrap.

But on Monday the rusty, 105-foot-long steel tug saw daylight again, as crews manning a pair of passive cranes pried her from the estuary floor.

The vessel’s raising marked a new phase of a roughly three-month effort to exhume the carcasses of dozens of old boats from the estuary, a project being coordinated among more than a dozen agencies whose costs could ultimately approach $6 million. For the last several weeks crews led by CalRecycle have worked to pull up smaller vessels; on Monday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took the reins, leading the effort to pull up the Captain and the 150-foot-long Respect, which is slated for removal in December.

“This is the start of the removal process on a large scale,” said Todd Thalhamer, waste management engineer for CalRecycle.

Thalhamer said the project may be the largest vessel removal effort to be undertaken on the West Coast since Pearl Harbor, at the start of World War II. The multi-agency team is expecting to remove 40 vessels settled along the length of the estuary, some of them visible to the rowers, sailors and Coasties who frequent the estuary, some of them obscured by water.

The project was initiated when representatives from the Oakland Police Department approached CalRecycle about cleaning up the estuary; the state agency had conducted similar cleanups on a pilot basis in a handful of other locations. Alameda’s harbormasters jumped in as well, seeking removal of anchor-outs who were moored in the estuary illegally.

All but one of the anchor outs have been relocated, Thalhamer said, though two of the boats sank in transit and had to be pulled out of the water – at a cost of about $4,000 per vessel.

The sunken vessels pose both a navigational hazard and an environmental one, often leaking toxic chemicals into the waters that claimed them. Removing them can be a costly challenge, and one requires coordination among government agencies.

Once removed, the vessels will be stored and then, scrapped, project principals said.

The larger vessels are being righted and hoisted out of the water, according to Will Duncan of the Environmental Protection Agency; some of the 22 smaller vessels that had been recovered as of Monday came up in pieces, Thalhamer said. In addition to the two tugs, which sit off the shore of Francis Collins’ Clement Street property near the Park Street Bridge, crews will be removing a pair of barges that sunk in the same spot.

“It’s kind of a whole graveyard here that you would never know (about),” Thalhamer said.

Related: Estuary set for cleanup