Drill ship and tow vessels still battling Gulf of Alaska storm

casey.grove@adn.comDecember 29, 2012 

Update, 2:30 p.m.:

The Coast Guard says the crews of two towing vessels attached to a Shell drill ship continue to battle a fierce storm in the Gulf of Alaska.

The crews remain stationed with the drill rig Kulluk Sunday 20 miles from Alaska's Kodiak Island as they wait in rough seas for another tug boat to arrive. The Coast Guard says the goal is to tow the Kulluk to a safe harbor and determine the next step.

All 18 crew members on the Kulluk were safely evacuated Saturday from the drill ship, which has no propulsion system of its own.

Shell says two minor injuries on one towing vessel have been reported.

The Kulluk was being towed Thursday from Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands to Seattle when problems arose.

-- Associated Press

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Original story:

Two powerful ships towed a round Shell drilling vessel through rough water south of Kodiak Island late Saturday and into the Gulf of Alaska with the hopes of weathering a storm in the open ocean before heading for a safe harbor.

The new course away from land for the tiny flotilla represented a change of plans from Friday, when officials hoped the vessels could reach protected waters by Saturday afternoon. The still-unresolved drama that began unfolding Thursday is just the latest in a series of mishaps for Royal Dutch Shell in its offshore drilling efforts in the Arctic this year.

In a series of failures that began Thursday, the 360-foot Aiviq, owned by Edison Chouest of Louisiana and under contract to Shell, briefly lost its towline with the $290 million, 266-foot-wide Kulluk, then suffered a complete shutdown of its four engines early Friday. Another Shell-contracted tugboat, the Guardsman, arrived about 2 p.m. Friday and connected to the Kulluk and Aiviq.

The Kulluck's cone shape was designed for handling Arctic ice while anchored at a drilling site, but under tow in a fierce North Pacific storm, it was tossing and turning perilously. About 9 p.m. Friday, Shell contacted the Coast Guard and asked for help in removing the crew "due to safety concerns for the personnel on board in the rolling and pitching vessel in heavy seas," the Coast Guard said.

The first efforts failed because of weather, but by Saturday afternoon two Coast Guard MH-60 Jayhawk helicopters had removed the Kulluk's 18-person crew and flown them to Kodiak, Coast Guard spokesman Petty Officer David Mosley said. (Coast Guard video of the Kulluk evacuation here.)

"It's precautionary measure. They weren't in any immediate danger," Mosley said. "As this continued to unfold, they just wanted to mitigate any potential issues with that crew onboard."

Coast Guard helicopters were also able to deliver a ton of engine parts and technicians to the Aiviq, and the ship's crew had two of its four engines up and running by Saturday morning, Shell said.

 

What started as 20-foot seas and 40 mph wind built to 35-foot seas and gusts to more than 50 mph, the Coast Guard said.

The weather and the combined weight of the Kulluk and Aiviq were too much for the tugboat Guardsman, which was unable to stop the vessels from drifting. By 5:30 a.m. Saturday, its towline had also broken free, the Coast Guard said. Saturday morning, the Kulluk was about 27 miles from the Trinity Islands and drifting at a rate that would have had it hitting the islands in as little as 12 hours, Mosley told the Associated Press.

"We don't want it to go aground," he said. "When a vessel goes aground, it's directly played upon by the waves hitting it and having it hit something solid."

In what Shell spokesman Curtis Smith described as "cascading assets into the theater," another Shell-contracted ship, the Nanuq, had been sent from Seward at the first sign of trouble. It arrived Saturday morning. The Aiviq soon had all four of its engines running, and with the Nanuq's help, was towing the Kulluk farther out to sea to the southeast late Saturday, Smith said. The plan was to avoid more bad weather and the worst-case scenario that the vessels could again drift toward land, he said.

A third tugboat, the Alert, was en route Saturday from Prince William Sound, the Coast Guard said. The Alert first arrived in Valdez in 2000 as part of the Alyeska Pipeline Service Co.'s disaster response system. The Coast Guard said that of the vessels responding to the emergency, only the Aiviq and the Alert were capable of towing the Kulluk.

"We're still looking at options for safe harbor, but we're going to wait out some predicted bad weather before making a run to the north," Smith said. "We feel like the situation has stabilized and the tow is secure, but it's critical that we remain focused on 'what if?' "

New details of the earlier wrangling to get the Aiviq and Kulluk under control also emerged Saturday.

The Aiviq first ran into trouble Thursday while towing the Kulluk from Dutch Harbor to Everett, Wash., where it was to receive off-season maintenance, according to Shell. The vessels were about 50 miles south of Kodiak Island and east of the Trinity Islands, fighting the bucking seas, when a buckle on the towline connecting them broke, Smith said. The Aiviq's crew attached an emergency towline to the Kulluk, but then the Aiviq's four engines failed, likely fouled by bad fuel, Smith said.

Shell said it doesn't know why the towline broke, how the Aiviq's fuel was contaminated, and if the two problems were related.

"That's something we'll have to investigate once this incident is over," Smith said.

The Alex Haley, a Coast Guard cutter on patrol in the Gulf, arrived to help and connected a towline to the stricken vessels early Friday, the Coast Guard said in a statement. At that point, the wind was blowing 40 mph, and the seas were 35 feet and building, the Coast Guard said.

"The heavy seas, strong winds, and sheer mass of both Aiviq and Kulluk created enormous challenges for Alex Haley to establish and maintain the tow," the Coast Guard statement said. "At approximately 6:30 a.m. the crew of the Alex Haley reported that the towline had parted and become entangled in the ship's port propeller."

The cutter was ordered to return to Kodiak, and the Coast Guard launched two others: the Hickory, from Homer, and the Spar, from Kodiak, said Mosley, with the Coast Guard.

A unified command was assembled Friday, bringing together Shell, the Coast Guard, Edison Chouest, the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the Kodiak Borough.

 

Reach Casey Grove at casey.grove@adn.com or 257-4589.

 

 

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