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Superior's gales claim Duluth tug

With rough weather approaching, the U.S. Coast Guard was forced to temporarily call off cleanup efforts early Monday afternoon where a Duluth-based tugboat is beached about 21 miles east of Grand Marais, Mich.

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With rough weather approaching, the U.S. Coast Guard was forced to temporarily call off cleanup efforts early Monday afternoon where a Duluth-based tugboat is beached about 21 miles east of Grand Marais, Mich.

Most potential contaminants have been removed from the tug Seneca, which belongs to Zenith Tugboat Co. of Duluth. Hazardous materials originally aboard the tug included about 1,800 gallons of diesel fuel, 45 gallons of lube oil, 25 gallons of waste oil and 30 gallons of paint. All but the lube oil have been removed, Lt.j.g. William White said.

The Seneca was being towed Dec. 2 from Sault Ste. Marie to Duluth by the Susan Hoey, the newest member of Zenith's fleet, when a line failed in rough waters, setting the unpowered and crewless vessel adrift about 25 miles west of Whitefish Point. Franz VonRiedel, Zenith's owner, said it appears the towline was severed by a piece of exposed metal.

Rather than attempt to recover the Seneca indangerous, 10-foot seas, the Susan Hoey took refuge from the storm in Grand Marais, Mich.

"We had a rough enough time with just our own tug that night getting into Grand Marais," said VonRiedel, captain of the Susan Hoey that day. "The seas were climbing over the top of us and freezing instantly. We had literally zero visibility, the windows were all ice."

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Ted Wagner, the chief engineer aboard the Susan Hoey, said, "Franz is a hell of a boat handler. Not too many people could have done what he did that night."

"It was a team effort," Von Riedel said. "Wagner kept right on top of things down below in the engine room, and that's not an easy job running the machinery when you're takin' 40-degree rolls."

Von Riedel also expressed gratitude for the help of Coast Guard Auxiliary member Howard Baker, who was on the Grand Marais pier in the snowstorm with a hand-held radio guiding him into the harbor that day. "Wecouldn't even see the piers. We just suddenly felt the seas calm and knew we were safe. It was a great feeling to know we made it."

Wagner has worked the North Atlantic and all five Great Lakes, but said, "It's always Superior that's the most terrifying."

The Seneca was spotted a couple of days later near its current resting place. The Susan Hoey was first on the scene but was unable to reach the tug because of shoals in the area. The82-foot Susan Hoey draws10 feet 7 inches of water; the 94-foot Seneca draws 9 feet.

The Seneca came to rest about 50 yards from shore in a remote area of Lake Superior.

VonRiedel said the tug will be a total loss because water and ice infiltrated the vessel's internal systems, destroying them. The hull might be reused.

VonRiedel said the Seneca had been in good working order but was being towed by the Susan Hoey to conserve fuel. Both boats were headed to Duluth. Zenith bought the 56-year-old Susan Hoey in November to replace the67-year-old Seneca.

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While VonRiedel described the Seneca as a very sound, reliable boat, he said it was not built for Great Lakes use and would have required extensive structural work to improve its sight lines. Before the accident, he had been putting together a deal to sell the tug to a buyer in New Orleans.

The Seneca was Zenith's first tug, when the company launched in 2001.

"It's sad to see her go. That boat has a lot of sentimental value to it," VonRiedel said. "It was a great tug. It never once broke down on me, and it was by far the prettiest tug in our fleet."

Zenith now has three working tugs -- the Susan Hoey, the Athena and the Sioux.

White said the Coast Guard will reassess recovery options after the weather system passes.

With winter bearing down, White said, "It could be a difficult scenario. Lake Superior can be pretty rough at this time of year."

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