KODIAK -- Even for experienced U.S. Coast Guard crews, the situation with the Kulluk was hairy.
The December easterly storm in the Gulf of Alaska was blowing hard. A week into a month-long journey that began Dec. 21 from Dutch Harbor to the Seattle area for off-season maintenance, Royal Dutch Shell's prized oil drilling rig had broken its tow in 20-plus-foot seas and 45-mph winds. The Kulluk was tethered back onto a Shell-contracting towing ship, the massive, brand-new, $200 million Aiviq, with a backup towline.
Then, early on Dec. 28, all four engines on the Aiviq failed.
The Shell-owned Kulluk is a complex contraption to maneuver. It cannot propel itself, so when it breaks from the tow it's a runaway rig at sea. It's round, 266 feet in diameter and weighs just less than 28,000 tons -- more than 50 million pounds, Shell says.
The Aiviq, built for Shell and owned by Louisiana-based Edison Chouest with a crew of 24 on board, was struggling to use its thrusters to hold a position. Aboard the Kulluk was a skeleton crew of 18 working for Shell contractor Noble Drilling Corp. The Aiviq's engines were eventually repaired and restarted. Various ships tried to establish towlines over the next few days but the lines kept breaking and had to be shackled together.
"The conditions of the lines, they had previously broke. They weren't fresh, new lines," said Coast Guard Capt. Paul Mehler, who is overseeing the federal response to the Kulluk grounding.
At Air Station Kodiak, Cmdr. Mark Vislay, the base operations officer, was marshaling air crews in preparation for the worst-case scenario: people tossed into the churning, frigid, unforgiving sea.
"With a sea state of 20-plus seas and winds upwards of 40 to 50 knots, vessels and rigs like this do not ride that well," Vislay said in an interview with the Daily News this week. The pitching motion, he said, was severe.
Should the Coast Guard send its own crews into the storm to evacuate the 18 aboard the Kulluk? The decision to launch was made in Juneau. Back at Air Station Kodiak, Vislay, a 42-year-old pilot with more than 18 years in the Coast Guard, began directing air operations for the helicopters and C-130, a role he served throughout the evacuation. The Kulluk and the Aiviq were just 30 flying minutes away, he said, and that unusual proximity to base lessened the risk to the Coast Guard crewmen.
At 10:30 p.m. on Dec. 28, the Coast Guard launched two MH-60 helicopters, each carrying two pilots, a flight mechanic and a rescue swimmer, along with a C-130, whose crew would handle communications at the scene.
"For us, when you come over in a helicopter to hoist from something like that that is moving up and down, almost violently, it's an extreme hazard," Vislay said.
The evacuation plan was to hover a helicopter over the rig's helo deck, lower a basket and hoist the crew one by one, Vislay said. On a pitching rig, it's too dangerous to land.
The winds were pummeling. It was dark. Waves were crashing near the helo pad, the one open area. The emergency towline was connected to the rig near the pad, complicating the approach. The way the rig was positioned, the helicopters couldn't fly nose into the wind.
And at the rig's center was a swaying, 160-foot-tall derrick.
"It makes the hoist very challenging because you don't want to get hit by that tower," Vislay said.
Piping, rigging, beams, cranes and other Kulluk features made maneuvering extra challenging, he said.
The Coast Guard considered putting a rescue swimmer into the water and directing the Kulluk crew, in insulated survival suits, to jump in. That would have eliminated some hazards but created new ones, he said.
"As long as we can control the situation, we'll push to that point," Vislay said. The Kulluk's freeboard deck was so high up that jumping wouldn't have been safe, he said.
So the first evacuation effort was aborted. The Coast Guard monitored the situation through the night.
The next day, on Dec. 29, the Coast Guard tried again. By now, the Kulluk was under tow to two vessels, the Aiviq and another Shell-contracted vessel, the Nanuq. The rig was positioned so that the helicopters could approach at a safe angle. It was light.
"And we got lucky," Vislay said. "We were able to get in there a little closer."
By Saturday afternoon, the Coast Guard had lifted all 18 crew members off the Kulluk. It took a total of three trips in two helicopters.
Repeated efforts by the Daily News to interview the Kulluk crew have been unsuccessful
In briefings to reporters, officials with Shell and Noble have praised the Coast Guard for getting the crew off the rig.
"They were in good spirits," Vislay said. "They were very happy to be off. I think it was a rough ride."
The situation continued to worsen and tow lines kept breaking.
The afternoon of Dec. 31, the tow line to the Aiviq again broke. By then, the second towline was to the Alert, a powerful tugboat borrowed from its normal oil spill prevention duties in Prince William Sound. But the Alert couldn’t hold the Kulluk alone. A command team in Anchorage ordered the Alert to let loose its tether so its crew wouldn’t be in danger.
"We really hated to let her go. We hung onto it as long as we could," Alert crew member Mike Mueller of Homer said later when the tug docked in Kodiak.
At 8:48 p.m. on Dec. 31, the unmanned Kulluk grounded in what locals say is a rocky spot just off the shore of Sitkalidak Island, south of Kodiak.
Daily News photographer Bob Hallinen contributed to this story.