Voyage from Valdez on the SS Arco Juneau

April 11, 1979: Battered by winds reaching 83 mph and accompanied by swells reaching 50 feet, the Arco Juneau makes its way off the coast of southern Washington on a voyage to Long Beach.

The first four photos in the above gallery by Len Lahman appeared in the April 29, 1979, Los Angeles Times. They accompanied an in-depth story by staff writer William C. Rempel. Here are some excerpts from Rempel’s article:

ABOARD THE SS ARCO JUNEAU — Three days out of Valdez, bound for Long Beach with nearly 35 million gallons of black Alaskan crude on it, the storm’s fury struck.

The massive oil tanker, suddenly small and vulnerable, was swallowed up by the 60-foot whitecapped waves and muscled by gale-force winds gusting to 83 mph. …

Storms are common in the Gulf of Alaska, particularly during the winter when many tanker crewmen prefer to take their vacations, hoping to miss some of the roughest weather.

Some ship’s captains call the Alaskan route the most rigorous in the world because of the combination of stormy weather, fog and demanding anti-pollution regulations.

This was the Arco Juneau’s 39th Valdez transit, 21 of those under Capt. Emery McGowen of Huntington Beach, who now studied the whitecapped horizon and shook his head.

“This is the worst I’ve seen in these waters,” said the 61-year-old veteran of innumerable storms.

We were off the coast of southern Washington at the time, having crossed the gulf without seeing a whitecap. The storm caught the captain and the National Weather Service by surprise.

“Nothing to worry about, though,” drawled McGowen, whose 40 years at sea have not rubbed out his Texarkana accent. “We’ve got a good sea boat here.”

He gestured out the bridge window toward the deck six floors below. As he spoke, a great gray swell rolled up over the bow, pointed it skyward, then lifted 150,000 tons of ship and cargo as effortlessly as a plastic bathtub toy.

Near the crest, the bow plunged into the wave and the deck disappeared under tons of green water and white foam. We dropped with the speed of a roller coaster.

A spotlight 50 feet above the water level was washed overboard. Railings snapped and sagged. The heavy gangway, stowed on deck, was mangled beyond use.

I searched the faces on the bridge for reassurance — or any sign of anxiety.

One officer stifled a yawn. The captain poured another cup of tea without spilling a drop.

The Arco Juneau was slowed to 4 knots (at full speed, it does 17 knots), and McGowen ordered a series of course changes to keep the fast-running swells from breaking across the ship’s side — course changes that by late afternoon had us heading for Japan.

“No use fighting Mother Nature,” explained a clam McGowen. “We’ll go slow, follow the seas and wait till she blows over. You weren’t in any hurry, were you?”

In 12 hours, time enough to make about 200 miles the day before, the Arco Juneau made only 45 miles — and most of that was in the wrong direction.

Eventually, the ship was brought back around on course to Long Beach, as the wind shifted direction. With the swells running up from behind, we rode out the rest of the storm like a big slow surfboard. …

The ship’s cargo this trip will produce, among many other petroleum products, about 15 million gallons of gasoline. …

The Santa Barbara Channel is full of small boats on Easter Sunday (April 15), our seventh and last day at sea. The men on the bridge move frequently from radar to binoculars, but a light fog hampers visibility.

An officer at one radar unit announced the location of vessel traffic ahead and on either side of the tanker.

Capt. McGowen, binoculars at his eyes, scanned the horizon.

“Sometimes you come through here, and the traffic just about scares you to death,” he said without putting down the glasses.

“Especially when you get some of these little sailboats that radar can’t find,” he added, pointing ahead a few miles. “They should all have radar deflectors.” …

There will be three nights on shore for the crew of the Arco Juneau before the ship sails on its 40th voyage to Valdez — time enough to repair the weather damage to the ship and cure the crew’s channel fever.”

Earlier on Aug. 1, 1977, McGowen and the Arco Juneau made history. The ship sailed out of Valdez with the first load of crude oil from the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.

According to, the Arco Juneau was built in 1974 at the Bethlehem Sparrows Point shipyard in Maryland. It was scrapped in 2002.

An additional Aug. 8, 1977, photo taken by Cal Montney was added to the above gallery.