OLD MASSETT, B.C. - It's slow going in heavy seas, but a Canadian Coast Guard vessel is continuing to tow a disabled Russian cargo ship away from the rocky shores of British Columbia's northern coast.
The operation began Friday evening when the crew of the Gordon Reid managed to secure a tether to the Simushir.
The container ship lost power Thursday night in rough water off Haida Gwaii, also known as the Queen Charlotte Islands, while sailing from Washington state to Russia.
There were immediate concerns it could drift ashore, break apart and spill hundreds of tonnes of bunker and diesel fuel, creating an environmental disaster.
Sub Lt. Ron MacDougall at the Canadian Forces' joint rescue co-ordination centre in Victoria, said the Simushir was being towed due West away from shore at about 3.7 kilometres per hour, in three to four metres seas. He said it was about 39 kilometres from the western shore of Haida Gwaii.
MacDougall said the Canadian Coast Guard vessel Sir Wilfrid Laurier and the American Coast Guard cutter Spar arrived on the scene Saturday, with the ocean going tug Barbara Foss expected later in the day, to provide any additional assistance that might be needed.
All three vessels have towing capability, but it's whether they would attempt to secure tethers to the stricken cargo ship.
As well, a Canadian Forces Cormorant helicopter and Buffalo aircraft, along with a U.S. Coast Guard Jayhawk helicopter, are on standby in case they are needed.
Reporters were told during a Friday conference call that the ship's captain had been evacuated to Sandspit, on the eastern side of Haida Gwaii, to receive medical care for an undetermined condition.
Kia said the 10 remaining crew members were working on restarting the ship's engines, but there was no indication early Saturday morning whether they were making progress.
MacDougall said there was no need to evacuate the crew, at this time.
Haida Nation president Peter Lantin said the fact the Gordon Reid was able to tether to Simushir was encouraging.
"If the weather picks up it could compromise that, but as of right now there is a little sense of relief that we might have averted catastrophe here," said Latin.
He added, however, that the Haida were still preparing for a worst-case scenario should the tow line break.
The Haida Nation set up an emergency command centre in Old Massett, on the northern tip of Haida Gwaii, in case the vessel runs aground.
Lantin said an oil spill along the coast of Haida Gwaii would be a disaster.
"This is home for us. If this thing runs aground and hits in one of the most culturally sensitive areas of Haida Gwaii, it's going to have catastrophic effects," he said.
Roger Girouard, the coast guard's assistant West Coast commissioner, said the Russian ship is carrying mining equipment and unnamed solvents, as well as hundreds of tonnes of fuel.
Girouard said Friday that environmental-response assets from government agencies and private industry were being deployed to the area as a precautionary measure.
Numerous federal and provincial agencies were involved in co-ordinating a response, including the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Transport Canada and B.C.'s Environment Ministry. Western Canada Marine Response Corp., which is contracted by the federal government to respond to oil spills, said it too had been notified and its crews were on standby.
The potential for marine disasters along B.C.'s coast has become a particularly sensitive subject in recent years amid the debate over the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline. The project, if approved, would include a terminal in Kitimat, B.C., and would see tankers carrying heavy crude from Alberta traversing B.C.'s northern coast.
Lantin, whose community has staunchly opposed the Northern Gateway pipeline, said a spill in Haida Gwaii would only strengthen that opposition.
"I think regardless of what happens this is a good training exercise and an eye opener," he said. "You know it really shows us how little we're prepared ... and how much work we have to do to prepare, you know, if it happens again or when it happens again."
The Simushir is registered in Kholmsk, Russia, and owned by Russian shipping firm SASCO, also known as Sakhalin Shipping Company, according to the company's website.
The SASCO website says the ship was built in the Netherlands in 1998.
— With files from Vivian Luk, James Keller and Keven Drews in Vancouver and Dirk Meissner in Victoria