Update, 1 a.m.:
The Shell drilling rig Kulluk was successfully refloated from Sitkalidak Isiand at 10:10 p.m. Sunday, officials said. Read the updated story here.
Neither Shell nor the Coast Guard are talking about their full plans for getting the stranded Kulluk drilling rig floating again and into a shipyard, assuming that can happen before spring brings an end to the season of ferocious storms.
But that hasn't stopped other experts from wondering what will happen or what they themselves might do under the circumstances.
Far away from Alaska on Throggs Neck, a little finger of the Bronx that juts into Long Island Sound, Richard Burke has been following events with professional curiosity, listening to teleconferenced news conferences from Anchorage and watching online videos shot from Coast Guard helicopters.
Burke is a professor of engineering at the State University of New York Maritime College and director of the Global Maritime Center for Research, Development, Education & Training. He said he is amazed by how much punishment the Kulluk, Royal Dutch Shell's Arctic offshore rig, has taken without breaking up.
"It's built like a brick battleship," he said in a telephone interview last week. "This barge is quite valuable. Getting it off intact is pretty important from an economic perspective."
Much closer to home, Dan Magone of Magone Marine Service in Dutch Harbor, from where the Kulluk set sail Dec. 21 for a Seattle shipyard, also said the round-bottom vessel is unusual.
"If it was a regular ship, a drill ship, or a barge type of thing -- man, it'd really be in bad shape, because of the pounding it's taking," Magone said in a recent interview. "It's possible that that thing is still relatively intact."
Magone is correct, according to salvage experts who inspected the Kulluk last week -- after his interview with the Daily News -- and reported that the Kulluk was damaged, with at least one flooded space below deck, but seaworthy.
The Kulluk's rescuers are some of the best in the business: Smit International, based in the Netherlands, and Donjon Marine, headquartered in New Jersey. Both are deeply involved in one of the biggest salvage jobs in the world, removing the Costa Concordia cruise ship from the rocks off the coast of Italy.
Reached by phone, Donjon's salvage master, John Witte Jr., said he couldn't talk about the Kulluk. Smit didn't respond to an email sent to headquarters in Rotterdam.
Burke said one of the most important attributes the Kulluk salvage team can have right now is patience.
"You don't try to refloat the vessel until you are well prepared, believe you have a high probability of success, and the conditions are right, both the tide and wind," he said. "If the ship is stable and it's tacked down, a little patience is called for to make sure you get completely ready to do a successful operation to get it off."
The rig's estimated weight is approximately 21,000 tons.
One common technique is to lighten a grounded vessel as much as possible, removing whatever equipment and fuel can be taken off, and at the same time filling ballast tanks and even fuel tanks with seawater, Burke said.
The additional seawater puts the vessel harder on the ground and keeps it from moving around in storms or tides, further damaging its bottom, as the excess weight is removed. But when conditions are right to attempt the tow, the seawater can be quickly pumped out or forced out with compressed air, restoring as much buoyancy to the vessel as possible in a short amount of time. That, in turn, reduces its drag on the bottom and means it doesn't have to be pulled as far before it starts to float -- assuming its hull isn't too damaged.
"If there's enough water ballast on board, when there's a suitably high tide all they would have to do is pump off the water ballast, then have the tugs pull it off," Burke said. "Everything would be geared to make the ship as light as possible at the right time so that the towing operation has a high probability of success."
Incident command officials said this week that they don't intend to remove the 155,000 gallons of fuel and other petroleum products on board. That itself would be risky because a long hose or pipe would have to be used, since no response vessel can pull up alongside. There was also no plan to disassemble and airlift off the heavy derrick, piece by piece, from the deck using the powerful Army Chinook helicopters brought to the scene -- at least not now.
"As it stands at the moment, there is absolutely no plan to remove any of the equipment with the Chinooks," Sean Churchfield, Shell's Alaska operations manager, said at a news conference Saturday.
Even though the fuel likely weighs more than 1.1 million pounds, Burke said he understood the reluctance to remove it.
"The last thing you want is the hose breaking and as a consequence you get an oil spill," he said. "You'd have thousands of gallons in the hose, which would make a mess. And they (have) got to have some place to pump it to, and from what I can see from the photographs, there's nothing there."
The towboats are another consideration, Burke said. The powerful, four-engine Aiviq, owned by Edison Chouest of Louisiana, was especially built to tow the Kulluk, but it suffered failure of all four engines during the journey to Seattle -- a contributing factor in the grounding.
"The problem is, whatever happened for her to lose power during the tow, you've got to worry about the reliability of that vessel," Burke said.
Incident response officials have decided that the Aiviq will be the lead towing vessel with help from the Alert -- another powerful tug, owned by Crowley Maritime, that is normally stationed in Valdez. The Alert tried to save the Kulluk before the grounding, but it couldn't make headway in the vicious storm pounding the ships on New Year's Eve. Being pulled toward shore, the tug had to cut loose.
On Sunday, vessel tracking reports showed the Aiviq and the Alert maneuvering in the vicinity of the Kulluk off Sitkalidak Island, south of Kodiak Island. At 4 p.m., the Unified Command said the salvage team had successfully attached a main towline to the rig.
Burke said he knows of salvage operations that have used as many as five tugs, "but those have been very specially designed operations."
Magone, the salvage expert from Dutch Harbor, expects the Kulluk incident command will try to move quickly once everything is in place.
"You only get a brief window, typically, this time of year, where you're going to have a calm sea state back there," he said. "You wouldn't need very calm seas if the thing's relatively intact to just get a crew on there and make up towing and pull it the heck out of there." But if that fails, a "convoluted" plan B might entail removing the fuel and securing the vessel.
While the weather has been decent the last week -- allowing an Army Chinook to lower a big generator to the Kulluk's deck to replace the power system wrecked in the storms -- it won't last, Magone said.
"All you know is the weather's going to be bad because it's that time of year -- it's the worst time of the year," he said.
And that was true when the Kulluk left Dutch Harbor -- something he's still wondering about.
"They apparently have more faith in their equipment than they ought to have had, and not enough experience in the Gulf of Alaska because, from my perspective, this was not a prudent time to be taking that vessel anyway. That drill rig should've stayed in Unalaska where they built a special dock for it. Who knows if that dock will ever get to see it again?"
Magone expects that even if the Kulluk is worth fixing, it will take a long time to complete repairs on both the vessel and its machinery and wiring.
"I don't see how they could get it fixed fast enough to get it on their program for this coming year, which is a huge blow to their plans," he said. "Unless I'm really surprised and find out that, 'Oh, no, everything's intact, nothing got wet, we just lost some materials over the side' -- that may be the case, but I doubt it. I'll bet it's pretty darn serious, and if it is, it's gonna be a terrific amount of work."
Reach Richard Mauer at email@example.com or 257-4345.
Video: Coast Guard overflight of Kulluk
By RICHARD MAUER