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Abandoned Vessels: Drifting Across the Pacific Ocean Since 1617

26 Comments

Adrift Japanese fishing vessel.

The derelict Japanese fishing vessel RYOU-UN MARU drifts more than 125 miles from Forrester Island in southeast Alaska. The fishing vessel has been drifting unmanned at sea since the 2011 Japanese earthquake and subsequent tsunami more than a year ago (U.S. Coast Guard, Air Station Kodiak).

You might have already heard about the rusted-out, abandoned fishing vessel adrift off British Columbia, Canada. The 170 foot (53 meter) long vessel is the Ryou-Un Maru, a squid boat that broke free from a dock in Hokkaido, Japan, after the March 11, 2011 tsunami. Fortunately, no one was on board when the tsunami happened.

Over the past year it has drifted across the Pacific Ocean and was first observed in Canadian waters. The U.S. Coast Guard is now tracking the drift of the vessel, which entered U.S. waters March 31, 2012, and currently it is about 155 nautical miles away from Baranof Island in southeast Alaska.

The drift of the vessel confirms what generations of beach combers have known for a long time. The Pacific Ocean currents form a giant conveyor belt that carries flotsam (floating items) across the Pacific. Over the years I’ve found glass fish floats, glass bottles, and other Japanese items that have washed up along the coast of Washington state where I live.

But a big fishing vessel—that must be something really unusual—or is it?

In 2003, the 97-foot ship Genei Maru #7 [leaves this blog] caught fire and was abandoned at sea about halfway between Japan and the United States. This “ghost ship” ran aground on Kodiak, Alaska, after drifting at sea, crewless, for five months. And in 2006, the U.S. Coast Guard found an abandoned coal barge adrift off the Kenai Peninsula of Alaska, which had wandered across the Pacific from Russia.

Cover page of historical record of drifting Japanese vessels.

The document, "Record of Japanese Vessels Driven Upon the North-West Coast of America and its Outlying Islands," was originally published in 1872.

But there is evidence that vessels have been drifting across the Pacific for a long time. Check out this old document from 1872, “Record of Japanese Vessels Driven Upon the North-West Coast of America and its Outlying Islands.”

Some archaeologists think that Indigenous cultures of the Pacific Northwest Coast have been strongly influenced by the effects of foreign shipwrecks.

Artifacts from shipwrecks, including metals and other technologies, may have been used by these tribes (Quimby, G. I. 1985. Japanese Wrecks, Iron Tools, and Prehistoric Indians of the Northwest Coast. Arctic Anthropology 22(2): 7–15.).

And the blog A Blast From the Past [leaves this blog] has a lengthy discussion on historical and more recent cases of vessels washing across the Pacific. The oldest record is from 1617, when an abandoned Japanese ship was found near Acapulco, Mexico, but there are likely many other wrecks that went unrecorded because the vessels probably stranded in areas then inhabited only by native tribes.

The March 2011 tsunami certainly added to the amount of debris floating across the Pacific. If you find items you think might be from the tsunami, you can report them to DisasterDebris@noaa.gov.

Author: doughelton

Doug Helton is the Incident Operations Coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Emergency Response Division. The Division provides scientific and technical support to the Coast Guard during oil and chemical spill responses. The Division is based in Seattle, WA, but manages NOAA response efforts nationally.

26 thoughts on “Abandoned Vessels: Drifting Across the Pacific Ocean Since 1617

  1. Wow this was an amazing story to read, thank you for sharing :)

  2. That,s great, lets just waist our tax dollars and track the drift. Why don’t we do the right thing and tow that ship to a scrap yard? I’m sure that there is something of value on board the vessel. I’d say lets sink it but who knows what kind of toxins are on board.

    • Hi Mike. Thanks for comment. A salvage team did look at it and they decided it wasn’t safe to tow

      • I think that the F/V could have been towed back and salvaged properley. The japanese fishing vessels are very seaworthy with deep draft and high freeboard also she survived a year at sea without steerage . Whats a couple of more hundred miles too the bone yard? Capt, Phil

  3. Two questions:

    1. At what point will an abandoned vessel become “fair game” for a potential new owner?
    2. A large object such as this ship is a danger to maritime travel and, as Mike pointed out, hazardous materials such as diesel fuel may be on board. Is the Japanese government doing the right thing and accepting responsibility for securing this and/or other Japanese owned vessels? A ship such as this one could cause a costly environmental mini disaster in both cleanup resources and marine life.

  4. Can anyone tell me what factors make a ship unsafe to tow? Just curious.

    • I’m wondering the same thing! Hello!

      • I’m not sure the criteria the salvors used in this instance, but some considerations would be the distance to port, the potential towing speed, weather and sea conditions, rudder orientation and condition of the derelict, etc. Salvage is a risky and complicated job and I am glad there are professional salvors out there.

      • One thing that would make it not worthwhile to salvage is the liability if it does sink while on a tow line. Right now it’s still considered part of the Tsunami debris. Once someone hooks on to it, it becomes their problem. Frequently the cost to scrap an older vessel is more than the price of the steel, especially if there is asbestos, etc. Furthermore, the stresses on a ship being towed are considerably different than the stresses when adrift, and it may be barely stable and not feasible to pump out safely.

  5. Maybe its radioactive from the Nuclear facility.

    • Experts don’t think there is any radioactivity concern with the vessel. The vessel came from a port over three hundred kilometers from the power plant and the release of radioactive water came several days after the tsunami had washed debris into the ocean.

  6. Would love to see video of the shelling and sinking. A very wise decision from a safety and monetary stand point.

    • There are videos and photographs at the USCG District 17 public affairs website and the Coast Guard Alaska Facebook page

  7. Why do we not turn the craft over to the scuba divers? This craft would make a great artificial reef for divers and also a great fisheries area. Old Sarge

  8. Has anyone counted the number of antennas or other devices. ? Someone best take a better look at this ship

    • No conspiracy theory. That many antennae and more are quite common on commercial vessels all over the world. VHF, UHF, SSB, TV, Broadband, STS, GPS just to name a few!

  9. Wow, this is a very interesting idea! I wonder what people in North America thought, when they saw a foriegn craft (or object) washed upon the beach all of a sudden. Is it possible that people used the currents to travel to North America originally? Could plants or animals have used the currents to travel from Asia to North America?

    • It’s obvious that anything could make it over adrift if they knew how to catch rain water and use it to drink – otherwise they would probably die of thirst. I support the iceage draining of the Bering Straits therory, where the sea was drained by the freezing of the polar ice caps. Early man knew how to survive along the coast.

    • Yes there were. Ether chapter 2-6 of the Book of Mormon records a group of people doing just that. http://www.lds.org/scriptures/bofm/ether/3?lang=eng In fact I found this thread because I their is a reference in Ether chapter 6 that says the ancient drift crossing took 344 days and I was curious to find out if there was any data on the time to drift between continents.

  10. I would like to know if I came across another tsunami vessel adrift myself if I could salvage it legally? Fuel and all…..I’m skilled and resourceful and have plenty of friends that would like a shot of fuel for fair price.

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  12. Working together to save the ocean and the air supply; isn’t that enough incentive – human survival?

  13. I wonder if someone could claim this ship under salvage law?

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