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Live broadcast from the steamship Portland

Located within the boundary of the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary lie the remains of the freighter Jacob Luckenbach. On July 14, 1953 the Jacob Luckenbach departed San Francisco and was outbound for Pusan, Korea. The C-3 freighter, owned by the Luckenbach Steamship Company and under charter to the Pacific Far East Line, was loaded with military supplies for the Korean War effort. That same morning the Matson Navigation Company's freighter Hawaiian Pilot was approaching San Francisco, en-route from Honolulu, Hawaii. At 0440 a.m. the two vessels were navigating in fog when the Hawaiian Pilot struck the Jacob Luckenbach in the starboard quarter, mistaking it for the San Francisco Lightship. Just 15 miles from Point Bonita the Jacob Luckenbach went to the bottom within 30 minutes. All thirty-six crewmen aboard the Jacob Luckenbach were safely transferred to the Hawaiian Pilot before the steamer sunk in 176 feet (53 meters) of water. Both vessels were built in 1944 by Ingalls Shipbuilding Corporation at Pascagoula, Mississippi, their assigned hull numbers only five numbers apart. The Jacob Luckenbach was built as the Sea Robin to serve as a troopship and cargo carrier, whereas the Hawaiian Pilot was completed as the navy transport USS Burleigh. Both vessels were built to support war efforts during the Second World War.

Hawaiian Pilot Bow Damage After the Collision
Hawaiian Pilot Bow Damage After the Collision (Photo: Courtesy Robert Schwemmer Collection)

In November of 2001, mystery oil spills occurring along California s central coast had a significant impact on the seabird and shorebird populations from Morro Bay north to Point Reyes. The spills initiated an investigation by the United States Coast Guard (USCG), state, and federal trustees. By January 2002, the cooperative efforts of the response team determined that the point source most likely was not associated with transient vessels and focused on submerged sites as the possible source.

Staff from the Gulf of the Farallones, Monterey Bay and Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuaries reviewed various NOAA, California State and U.S. Navy shipwreck databases providing a list of shipwrecks in the region that may be the point source of the San Mateo mystery oil spills. Channel Islands' Cultural Resources Coordinator suggested the Jacob Luckenbach as the highest probable site due to the large quantity of bunker fuel onboard at the time of loss as indicated in the historic record. Engaging the volunteer support of two local sport divers who were familiar with the site, they explored and verified the Jacob Luckenbach as a point source of oil discharge. NOAA notified the USCG who then conducted a ROV investigation and collected oil samples in the water column above the shipwreck site. Comparing these samples to the mystery spills oil samples previously gathered; the chemical analysis or "fingerprinting" indicated a match. Oil samples later recovered from the Jacob Luckenbach's No. 5 cargo hold also matched the mystery oil spills and earlier oil spills dating back to 1992.

Jacob Luckenbach Moored in San Francisco
Jacob Luckenbach Moored in San Francisco. (Photo: Courtesy San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park)

The Unified Command (UC) was comprised of USCG Marine Safety Office San Francisco Bay, California Department of Fish and Game's Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR) and other state and federal agencies, working closely with NOAA's National Marine Sanctuary Program. The UC was confronted with the challenge that during the planned oil recovery to provide protection for the marine resources and the shipwreck as an historic resource. The National Historic Preservation Act (Section 106), and the National Marine Sanctuary Act extend federal protection to the Jacob Luckenbach due to its historical significance.

In compliance with these acts the oil salvage contractor was required to take steps to mitigate impacts to the resource and to document pre-disturbance condition of the site. To date, approximately 85,000 gallons have been extracted from the Jacob Luckenbach during the ten-month recovery operation at a cost of nearly $19,000,000.

Additional Resources and Links

Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary
Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary
Jacob Luckenbach History

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Revised September 12, 2023 by Sanctuaries Web Team | Contact Us | Web Site Owner: National Ocean Service
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