Coast Guard: Tanker sunk by U-boat off L.I could be leaking oil
Is the British oil tanker Coimbra — torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat off Long Island 76 years ago — still leaking?
That’s the question the U.S. Coast Guard wants to answer when the ship is examined during a deep drive starting next week.
Capt. Kevin Reed, commander Sector Coast Guard Sector Long Island Sound in New Haven, said the operation will assess the condition of the 423-foot long tanker and its potential to have an environmental impact.
“We have assembled a team including members of the Navy Supervisor of Salvage, the Coast Guard Academy Science Department, the Coast Guard Atlantic Strike Team, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and New York Department of Environmental Conservation to provide consultation for this assessment,” Reed said.
“This assessment will help determine any potential environmental threat the tanker poses. Our top priorities are safety of the public and protection of the marine environment.”
According to U-boat.net, the merchant steam tanker was hit by one torpedo at on Jan. 15, 1942. It was carrying 8,038 tons of lubricating oil. It left Bayone, N.J. a day before, and was bound for Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Of the 46 crew on board, only 10 survived. J.P. Bernard, the tanker’s captain, went down with the ship.
At 3 a.m., the German U-boat, U-123, commanded by Capt. Reinhard Hardegen, spotted the dim lit navigation lights of the tanker while the it was proceeding eastbound following the southern shore of Long Island.
“The torpedo struck on the starboard side, just aft of the superstructure at the forward end of the engine room. A huge towering explosion lit up the night sky and the cargo of oil quickly caught fire and spread across the water, “ U-boat.net said.
“Residents from the Hamptons on Long Island could see the fire at sea 27 miles away and alerted the authorities. Less than an hour later, a coup de grâce was fired from a stern torpedo tube that struck the tanker on starboard side underneath the funnel in Number Six main tank and caused the ship to settle fast by the stern, striking the sea floor after five minutes.
“Like his previous victim, the Norness, the bow of the Coimbra was sticking out of the water. Hardegen commented: ‘These are some pretty buoys we are leaving for the Yankees in the harbor approaches as replacement for the lightships. The tanker later sank completely.”
After the war, Hardegen ran a successful oil trading business. Today at age 105, Hardegen is the last surviving U-boat captain.
During the assessment, boaters are requested to keep a safe distance of 500 yards from the dive operation.
The wreck in more than 180 feet of water, is located approximately 30 miles southeast of Shinnecock, N.Y. off Long Island Island’s south shore.
The U. S. Coast Guard has contracted Resolve Marine to conduct an underwater assessment of the tanker Coimbra, from June 19-27..
According to Mother Nature Network, the explosion tore the tanker into three pieces.
“Despite the violent explosion that likely burned away much of the ship’s oil cargo, there have been several mysterious oil spills and incidents of tar balls washing ashore on Long Island beaches over the years. Many experts believe the Coimbra is the likely culprit and could still contain over a million gallons of oil. For this reason, NOAA ranks the submerged vessel among its 36 highest-risk wrecks and included it on its list of 17 sunken ships that need further evaluation.”
U-123 had a productive career harassing Allied shipping lanes in the North Atlantic. She sent 50 boats, most of them cargo ships like the Coimbra, to the bottom — 276,000 tons in all. She survived the war, although she was precariously damaged on a few occasions. After Germany’s surrender, she was handed over to the French Navy and remained in service as the Blaison until mid-1959.
In 2010, Congress appropriated $1 million to identify “the most ecologically and economically significant potentially polluting wrecks” in U.S. waters. Only a few of the 600 to 1,000 ships sitting on the bottom in U.S. waters that may contain oil have been carefully assessed, officials say.
Of particular concern are those sunk after 1890, when ships began to both use fuel oil for propulsion and began to transport petroleum products in quantity.
It’s believed that the Coimbra may contain about 42,500 barrels of oil, or about 1.2 million gallons. This is about one-tenth as much as was leaked by the Exxon Valdez in 1989. The wreck has been monitored since 1967; in 2009 recreational divers reported some oil seepage.
The Coimbra was sailing under the British flag. She was built in 1937 in Keil, Germany, by Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft. As with most Allied tankers attempting an Atlantic crossing during the war, she was lightly armed with a 4-inch gun, three light machine guns and a Holman Projector anti-aircraft weapon.