Tugboat runs aground on Alaska Peninsula, stranding crew and barge

Casey Grove

A tugboat hit an island off the Alaska Peninsula late Tuesday and ran aground, leaving its five-person crew in need of rescue and stranding a barge it was towing, according to the Coast Guard.

The crew members were plucked from the tug by two Coast Guard helicopters and were uninjured, the Coast Guard said. The tugboat and barge remain marooned 22 miles east of Cold Bay in Southwest Alaska.

A call for help came in about 9 p.m. Tuesday. The 78-foot Polar Wind was taking on water after hitting Ukolnoi Island, Coast Guard Petty Officer David Mosley said.

The tugboat was towing a 250-foot barge, the Unimak Trader, that grounded nearby with heavy equipment, fuel and more than a million pounds of frozen seafood aboard, according to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.

At the time of the grounding, the wind was reportedly blowing 40 mph with 6- to 8-foot seas, the Coast Guard said.

"The towline broke, and as they were trying to reestablish the tow, they ended up going aground," Mosely said. "They're not physically attached to each other, but they're aground in the same general location."

Environmental conservation officials said the tug and its barge grounded on the south side of Ukolnoi Island. It had been traveling from Sand Point to Dutch Harbor, 206 miles southwest of the grounding site, the DEC said.

The Coast Guard launched an MH-65 Dolphin helicopter from the deck of the cutter Sherman in the Bering Sea and a larger MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter and HC-130 Hercules plane from Kodiak. The Hercules kept tabs on the situation from above, Mosley said.

The Dolphin arrived about 2:15 a.m. Wednesday and dropped off a rescue swimmer to lighten its load before hoisting three of the five crew members onto the chopper, Mosley said.

A short time later, the Jayhawk arrived and pulled aboard the rescue swimmer and two remaining crew members, the Coast Guard said. All five from the crew were flown to Cold Bay.

According to the Coast Guard, the Polar Wind carried about 18,500 gallons of fuel, and the barge held about 5,000 gallons of fuel and 90 refrigerated cargo containers. Only 30 of the containers were in use, holding about 1,475,000 pounds of frozen seafood products, according to the DEC. On the barge's deck are a crane, a forklift and generators, the DEC said.

The crew of a Coast Guard Hercules flying over the marooned vessels to check for any signs of pollution Wednesday saw no leaking fuel or lubricants, said Ty Keltner, a spokesman for the DEC.

"No sign whatsoever," Keltner said.

Northland Services, which owns the tug and barge, hired Global Diving and Salvage in the hopes of retrieving the tugboat, the barge and the cargo, the Coast Guard said. Northland has also contracted with Alaska Chadux to deal with any pollution issues, the Coast Guard said.

In the Wednesday statement, environmental conservation officials noted that at least three endangered species live in the immediate vicinity of Ukolnoi Island and Pavlof Bay, including Steller's eiders that spend their winters there, and sea otters and sea lions that also call the area home.

Rain, snow and wind gusting to 45 mph were in the area forecast for Wednesday night.

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