At about 4 a.m., in the inky darkness before sunrise, a U.S. Coast Guard cutter intercepted a freighter in Juan de Fuca Strait.
The STX Daisy carried a large load of fuel oil destined for Washington State, where it was to pick up logs for the return voyage to China.
About once a week, the Coast Guard conducts unannounced checks on ships from ports-of-call with security concerns. The inspections are standard procedure, usually lasting about 45 minutes.
But Coast Guard officers spent hours aboard the STX Daisy. They were shocked by what they found. They were also shocked by what they did not find.
The captain of the 590-foot, 20,763-ton freighter was radioed in advance by the Coast Guard, who instructed him to have his crew stand on the weather deck rail for counting. He was also told to provide a rope ladder for boarding.
Not only did the crew not present, but also the Jacob's ladder provided was old and rickety.
Members of the boarding party wore dry suits and life jackets, as well as bulletproof vests. They carried such equipment as radiation detectors, a handheld computer and a portable breathalyzer. Nine of the 10 carried side arms and pepper spray.
The boarding team was in a small inflatable boat dispatched from the cutter Sea Lion. Bobbing in one-metre swells, the coxswain of the inflatable timed his approach to the freighter with the rise of the sea, as the Coast Guard officers clambered aboard.
The crew was found huddled behind the ship's superstructure. On the bridge, the captain was ordered to provide the ship's log book and other documents. He left, returning with only some of the things requested. Ordered to get his papers in order, the captain disappeared again. On his return, he spilled the records on the floor of the bridge.
After 30 minutes aboard ship, Tyson Muniz, the leader of the boarding party, told the Coast Guard Command Center about the dishevelled state of the crew and described the scene aboard ship.
The officers smelled alcohol on some of the sailors. They also smelled alcohol on the breath of the captain, who insisted he had a single beer with dinner.
Two breathalyzer tests were conducted during which the captain blew 0.102 and 0.108. Both samples were more than twice the legal limit of 0.04 for operators of vessels in U.S. waters.
The ship was ordered to anchor off Port Angeles, Wash., across the strait from Victoria.
Later on that day in mid-April, a search of the freighter found an empty bottle of whisky, an empty bottle smelling like chocolate liqueur, and three empty bottles of 40-proof soju, a distilled beverage popular in Korea. They also came across 76 empty beer cans.
Incredibly, the ship's garbage-record book indicated all empty cans and bottles had been discharged at sea about 12 hours earlier. The crew had quite the party as the coast of North America loomed.
The ship's list of provisions indicated some 38 bottles of soju had been consumed in the fortnight since setting sail.
The Coast Guard also discovered the Daisy had no charts for Puget Sound other than a black-and-white fax that did not show the coloured variations for depth.
In the U.S. government's sentencing memorandum, from which this account of the boarding is taken, prosecutors called for a $100,000 fine, as well as a three-month prison sentence as a deterrent to future mariners in these waters.
Although drunk and lacking charts, the freighter's captain intended to sail 330 kilometres in waters "characterized by narrow channels and strong currents," the memo states. "More importantly, the defendant's intended track crossed no less than six Washington State Ferry routes, the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, and many areas of high shipping and recreational boating activity."
The fuel oil he carried, China's most widely exported oil product, "posed further risk to the marine environment."
Last week, U.S. District Court Judge J. Richard Creatura sentenced the captain to 14 days in prison followed by six months of supervised release.
Capt. Seong Ug Sin, a 53-year-old South Korean national, is currently a guest of the U.S. government at the Federal Detention Center - SeaTac, 19 kilometres south of Seattle. The facility has paid work assignments. The pay scale ranges from 12 cents to 40 cents an hour, significantly less than the wage earned by the captain of a freighter.
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