A week or so ago, The Economist had an article on recent shipwrecks and shipping accidents on the great circle route between the U.S. West Coast and East Asia (The North Pacific great circle route. A cold coming We had of it., Jan 18 - subscription required).
The accompanying map showed that the shortest distance between East Asia and the Canadian-American Pacific Northwest runs through the Bering Sea:
Vessels traveling between East Asia and the North American West Coast actually pass both north and south of the Aleutians. My understanding is that most vessels on the route north of the Aleutians pass from the North Pacific into the Bering Sea at Unimak Pass, to the east of Dutch Harbor, rather than to the west as shown. The Coast Guard has begun monitoring traffic through the pass. I think vessels are passing through it at the rate of about 3,100 vessels a year.
The Economist article gives me an excuse to post some striking photos of the M/V Cougar Ace.
The Cougar Ace is a Singapore flagged, "roll-on roll-off auto carrier," of about 650 feet. On July 23 last year, she was headed from Japan to U.S. and Canadian west coast ports with a cargo of about 4,800 autos, almost all (~4,700) different models of Mazdas.
On July 23, something went wrong south of the central Aleutians while her crew was shifting ballast water between tanks, and the ship rolled over on her side.
An early news story said that the ship rolled to its side very quickly - in about 10 minutes from start to finish (Rescued crew of listing ship happy to be alive, Rachel D'Oro, AP, July 26)
Some stories suggest that the problems arose as the Cougar Ace was trying to comply with rules requiring an at-sea exchange of ballast water, to reduce the potential for introducing invasive species. For example, the BYM Magazine (link to this at end of post):
The Cougar Ace problems arose, because of a requirement to make on open sea transfer of ballast water, before entering US waters, to prevent environmental damage due to the introduction of invasive species, not native to the USA. During the transfer, some problem arose and the vessel suffered a severe list, within a few minutes.
The captain is reported to have told an aid worker,
...that the Cougar Ace began shifting sharply after it was hit by a large wave while the ballast was being adjusted. Terry [the aid worker - Ben] said rescuers told him the adjustment was made to conform to U.S. codes as the ship prepared to leave international waters. (D'Oro)
What ever went wrong with the ballast, the result was that the 23 person crew found themselves adrift in the North Pacific, south of the Aleutians, on a ship lying on its side.
The Coast Guard got the crew off on helicopters on the 24th. The cutter Rush arrived at the scene on the 25th. In the absence of a tug boat, the Cougar Ace continued to drift. A salvage survey team made their way on board on Sunday the 30th. They found - remarkably - that on two of the 14 cargo decks, most of the cars were still secured in their positions. There was partial flooding on one of the carge decks they examined. The engine room was undamaged, and there was no sign of flooding there. Unfortunately, one of the members of the survey team was killed in a fall while leaving the ship.
It was late in the night of July 31, before the Cougar Ace was taken in tow. She'd drifted a long ways in that time (see the map below). They towed her through the Aleutians into the Bering Sea to take advantage of better weather conditions, and brought her to moorage bouys of the Icicle Seafoods fish processing company in Wide Bay, not far to the northwest of Dutch Harbor, on August 8.
Map from incident Unified Command website.
Photo Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, J. Brown.
Once they had her upright, they towed her to Portland Oregon, where facilities were avilable to unload and store all the cars. Although its said that many of the cars were undamaged, in mid-December Mazda announced that it had decided to scrap them all. By one informal guestimate, the value of the Mazdas may have been about $100 million (Mazda scrapping all vehicles aboard capsized Cougar Ace, John Neff, AutoBlog, Dec 16)
Photo from U.S. Coast Guard Departing Wide Bay for Portland.
Here is a detailed account of the events from the "Boats, Yachts and Marinas Magazine: MV Cougar Ace (January 2007, pages 58-65). Wikipedia has an account: Cougar Ace. Here is a gallery of photos: M/V Cougar Ace .