Amid gusting wind and rough seas, a vessel towing a Shell Oil drill ship lost its engines in the Gulf of Alaska south of Kodiak on Friday, rendering both of the massive boats immobile and at risk of drifting out of control.
By Friday afternoon, a tugboat had arrived and was connected to the towing vessel, the 360-foot Aiviq, which was in turn linked to Shell's drill ship, the Kulluk, according to the Coast Guard. The tug was helping the two vessels maintain their position about 50 miles south of Kodiak Island, with plans to move them to safe harbor Saturday, the Coast Guard said.
The welcome news came after the Coast Guard cutter had to abandon efforts to help the stricken vessels when the cutter's towline tangled on one of its propellers.
After several setbacks for Shell in the summer offshore drilling season in the Arctic -- during which the Kulluk started an exploratory well in the Beaufort Sea -- the most recent trouble started Thursday.
The specially designed Aiviq was pulling the Kulluk from Dutch Harbor toward Seattle when a buckle on its towline broke, sending the crew scurrying to establish an emergency towline, according to Shell spokesman Curtis Smith.
"The buckle on the original towline failed, and that's something that'll have to be investigated later. It was a new buckle that was inspected in Dutch," Smith said.
They successfully reconnected to the drill ship, but then the Aiviq's engines quit during the early morning hours Friday, leaving it and the Kulluk, which has no propulsion system, without the ability to move, Coast Guard Petty Officer David Mosley said.
Seas were 20 to 25 feet and the wind was blowing about 40 mph, Mosley said. The 50 or so crew members on both vessels were dealing with an expensive drill ship 266 feet in diameter with a 160-foot derrick, he said.
"You become at the mercy of the seas when you don't have propulsion," Mosley told the Los Angeles times. "The boat is going to go where the seas push it."
If the two vessels had remained entirely without power, they might have contacted the nearest land in about two days' time, Mosley said.
Contaminated fuel is the likely culprit for the engine failures, Mosley and Smith said. The Aiviq's crew found a fuel tank unaffected by contamination and cleaned fuel injectors on one of the ship's engines, which they were able to restart, Smith said. The one functioning engine and positioning thrusters, powered by electric generators, allowed the Aiviq to avoid "significant" drift, Smith said.
When the first reports of the towline breakage came in to the Coast Guard, the cutter Alex Haley, on patrol in the Gulf of Alaska after holiday leave, headed toward the Kulluk and Aiviq, Mosley said. The Alex Haley's crew tried to launch its own towline to the disabled ships but the line fell beneath the cutter and tangled on a propeller, Mosley said. Because the cutter was no longer able to assist in a meaningful capacity, it had to return to Kodiak, he said.
About 2 p.m., a tugboat, the Guardsman, reached the Kulluk and Aiviq, Mosley said. It had connected a line to the Aiviq and will remain with the vessels overnight awaiting a fourth ship, the Nanuq, expected to arrive early Saturday, he said. Both the Guardsman and Nanuq had been in Seward.
"They'll theoretically be able to maneuver to a yet-to-be-identified harbor of safe refuge," Mosley said. "They're not necessarily going anywhere tonight as much as maintain their position to await the Nanuq tomorrow."
Another Coast Guard cutter, the Hickory, was en route from Homer and will meet up with the others midday Saturday, Mosley said. The recent harsh weather was expected to subside over the next several days, he said.
Reach Casey Grove at email@example.com or 257-4589.
By CASEY GROVE