Homer Alaska - News

Story last updated at 9:45 PM on Wednesday, May 4, 2011

'Wiinaq' keeps eye on cook inlet

Boat of the week

By McKibben Jackinsky
Staff Writer


Photos provided

Bob Shavelson, executive director of Cook Inletkeeper, is one of several in the organization who operates the Wiinaq, a 21-foot Zodiac.

In 1998, Cook Inletkeeper bought a 21-foot Zodiac, christening it the "Wiinaq" and basing it out of a slip in the Homer Harbor.

In its previous life, the vessel was owned by the Mercer Island Police Department, near Seattle, Wash., to provide marine patrols in the areas surrounding Mercer Island, Medina, Renton and Hunts Point. Since 1998, the rigid hull inflatable has safeguarded Cook Inlet, including Kachemak Bay. Its name, "Wiinaq," comes from the Alutiiq language and means "sea lion."

"Tommy Evans is one of our founding board members, influential in the start of this organization and in the naming of the vessel," said Cook Inletkeeper's Executive Director Bob Shavelson of the Nanwalek board member.

In 1995, Cook Inletkeeper received a settlement resulting from a lawsuit filed by the Alaska Center for the Environment, Greenpeace and Trustees for Alaska against Cook Inlet oil and gas producers Unocal, Shell-Western and Marathon. The suit involved more than 4,200 violations of the Clean Water Act in Cook Inlet over a several-year period of time. The companies agreed to settle out of court, a portion of the agreement including supplemental environmental project funds.

"In 1995, we got the money for a three-year project and within that there was money to purchase vessels," said Shavelson.

The first purchase was a 36-foot La Conner drift boat. It proved to be too costly in terms of maintenance and dollars, so, with additional funds, the Zodiac was purchased.

"It's a really nice boat. It has a V-hull and the inflatable pontoons are very safe and stable when it gets up on step," said Shavelson. "We typically get up around 25 knots. It's a very nimble boat. Perfect. Forgiving. It can come alongside other vessels very easily."

The Wiinaq is called into action when Cook Inletkeeper responds to pollution incidents.

"We don't get involved in booms specifically. Our role is to document problems, alert appropriate agencies and see that a proper response occurs," said Shavelson.

In the past, the vessel also has helped respond to complaints about ballast water discharges and the resulting concern over invasive species in Kachemak Bay.

"The Smithsonian Institute and a team of scientists came in five years ago and found more than a dozen invasive species in Kachemak Bay, so we know the primary vector of those is ballast water," said Shavelson.

The Wiinaq provides a platform for Cook Inletkeeper's water quality monitoring program on the south side of Kachemak Bay, as well as providing transportation to Seldovia, Port Graham and Nanwalek for meetings and presentations.

"We'll also use it, for example, during Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival, getting people out. It's a great opportunity to connect with people and talk about some of the conservation issues that affect Kachemak Bay," said Shavelson.

The Wiinaq's size makes it possible to trailer to other launch areas.

"We have gone to Kenai to launch it and go out to the (oil) platforms a number of times," said Shavelson. "And we get up into Anchorage and go to the small boat launch up there."

Of the inlet's strong tides and rough water, Shavelson said operators are careful "to pick our conditions" and prefer traveling in the presence of a support vessel.

The vessel is operated with a 90-horsepower, four-stroke Honda.

"It had a two-stroke engine and the board was very clear we wanted to have clean technology on the boat," said Shavelson.

According to information provided by Honda Marine, four-stroke engines are approximately 90 percent cleaner than typical two-strokes and do not release oil directly into water.

"At the time of the purchase four-stroke technology was just coming out," said Shavelson. "Honda US, based in Georgia, hadn't thought about the potential of partnering with nonprofit organizations. ... We were able to introduce Honda and four-stroke technology to a lot of (Waterkeeper organizations) that have powered vessels and got them sizeable discounts."

Waterkeepers Alliance, founded in 1999 by environmental attorney and activist Robert J. Kennedy, Jr., has more than 200 organizations in North and South America, Europe, Australia, Asia and Africa.

Cook Inletkeeper volunteer John Shows' efforts keep the Wiinaq's engine "up to speed," said Shavelson, and the organization's internal policies ensure the vessel's operators are trained.

"We have people checked out through the Coast Guard Auxiliary training and try to get people into the Fish and Wildlife Service training for skiff operators," said Shavelson. "They've been generous in sharing that capacity with us."

On Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m.-noon, Cook Inletkeeper will use the Wiinaq to provide "On the Bay Bird Viewing and Environmental Education." There is a four-person limit and a $20 per person suggested donation. For information, call 235-4068.

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben.jackinsky@homernews.com.