Shell drilling ship pulled away from beach

Anchorage Daily NewsJuly 14, 2012 

A Shell drilling vessel drifted while anchored in Dutch Harbor on Saturday and had to be pulled away from a beach by tug boats, according to the Coast Guard. Whether the ship grounded was not clear.

The Coast Guard is trying to determine why the Noble Discoverer's anchor slipped and whether the 571-foot vessel ran aground. Shell said the ship came "very near" land. Residents said its stern hit rocks before the vessel was towed off.

The ship, part of a group of vessels heading to the Alaska Arctic for exploratory drilling, had been resupplying and moored in Unalaska Bay near Hog Island for about two weeks. It started moving about 5:20 p.m. Saturday in winds gusting to more than 30 knots, Coast Guard officials said.

"When you anchor a boat, and you get high winds it's enough to move the boat on anchor, and basically the anchor didn't hold," said Lt. Jim Fothergill. "It appears that the tugs caught 'em before they ran aground."

That's not what Kristjan Laxfoss, a captain in Dutch Harbor, said he saw and photographed.

"It was on land," Laxfoss said in a telephone interview Saturday night. "It was as far as it could go ... it could not have gone any farther unless it turned and gone broadside."

Laxfoss snapped photos and watched, worried that the ship would turn parallel to the waves and shore. A local tugboat, the Saratoga, ran the ship's line out to a larger tug that pulled it away, he said.

"Thank god it only had the stern up on the rocks, and thank god that first tug boat got him out and got him out quick," Laxfoss said. "They were good."

"They were lucky, very lucky," he added.

Fothergill, still investigating the incident with the Coast Guard, said it was unclear if the ship had touched land or if its hull was damaged in any way before the rescue. There were no injuries, damage or pollution reported, he said.

"They're not reporting that they ran aground, only that they drug anchor," Fothergill said. "We're in the early phases of this investigation."

Shell confirmed the incident in a written statement.

"Today, while moored off the coast of Dutch Harbor, the Noble Discoverer drill ship drifted toward land and stopped very near the coast." Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said in an email.

The Lauren Foss, another Shell vessel, towed the Noble Discoverer back to its prior location, Smith said. The Coast Guard said the ship was anchored again late Saturday.

When told what Laxfoss had said and asked whether the vessel had grounded, Smith wrote: "The crew did not report a grounding or vibrations consistent with that kind of incident. That said, divers will be deployed as soon as possible to confirm that."

Shell is also examining the mooring system to find out why the vessel moved toward shore, he said.

Coast Guard Petty Officer Sara Francis said personnel with the Coast Guard's Marine Safety Detachment in Dutch Harbor, who should have been able to see the ship out their building's front window, estimated the ship only came within 175 yards of shore.

But Laxfoss and other Dutch Harbor residents said that was impossible and that the ship hit land. A local news site, the Dutch Harbor Telegraph, published a photo showing the vessel much closer and reported it "ran up on the beach" before being pulled off by the tug. Fothergill said Coast Guard personnel did not have eyes on the ship until tugboats were already pulling it away from land. The Coast Guard personnel would not have been able to see the Noble Discoverer out the window after it drifted, he said.

According to Francis, the ship's crew did not think they'd run aground on what was reportedly a soft beach.

"They didn't feel the vessel hit anything," Francis said. "They knew that they traveled closer to land, but that's about it."

Laxfoss disputed that the beach was soft.

"This beach is full of boulders," he said. "It's not soft."

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