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Lift ship loads up Kulluk in Dutch Harbor, headed for Singapore

Ben Anderson
Workers inspect the conical drill rig Kulluk after it was loaded onto the Chinese heavy-lift vessel Xiang Rui Kou in Captain's Bay, Unalaska on March 19, 2013. Courtesy Mark Meyer / Greenpeace

On March 9, the Royal Dutch Shell drillship Noble Discoverer left Seward, bound for Korea on the back of the 708-foot heavy lift ship Xiang Yun Kou. Now, Shell's other drill rig, the ill-fated Kulluk, is getting ready for a Pacific crossing of its own. On Tuesday, the conical rig was loaded onto the deck of the Xiang Yun Kou's sister vessel, the Chinese-flagged Xiang Rui Kou, in the waters near Unalaska in the Aleutian Islands.

The Kulluk, 266 feet in diameter, arrived in Dutch Harbor on March 5 to await its haul to an Asian shipyard for repairs after running aground south of Kodiak Island on New Year's Eve. Curtis Smith, Shell Alaska spokesman, said that the Kulluk would be bound for a shipyard in Singapore where it will undergo assessment and repair.

"The (Xiang Rui Kou) has moved underneath the Kulluk and crews are beginning to secure the rig to the cribbing (deck)," Smith said in an email. He added that the exact departure date and timeline for repairs has yet to be determined.

The Xiang Rui Kou is what's dubbed a "semi-submersible" vessel. When it comes time to load a vessel onto its long deck, the ship sinks partway into the water, allowing the vessel being towed to be positioned over the deck before refloating. By Tuesday afternoon, the Kulluk was resting atop the Xiang Rui Kou. The whole process takes several hours for both the sinking and refloating.

The Kulluk became grounded after its towing vessels lost their tether to the rig in high seas in the Gulf of Alaska in late December. After days of attempting to re-establish a connection and numerous vessels being called out to assist, the Kulluk ran aground just hours before the new year.

The grounding of the Kulluk was a big blow to Shell's dreams of reaching into Arctic Alaska oil, and along with numerous problems with the Noble Discoverer -- the company's other primary drilling rig operating in the region -- was largely responsible for the company's decision to suspend drilling for the 2013 season. Shell has expressed hope that it will be able to return in 2014 to finish what it started -- namely, completing exploratory wells to the level of hydrocarbons in hopes of tapping into some of the estimated 25 billion barrels of oil thought to lie underneath the Arctic seabed.

The Coast Guard authorized the Kulluk to be towed to Dutch Harbor in February, more than a month after its initial grounding, after determining the tow posed no environmental or safety threats.

As for the Noble Discoverer, that vessel is well on its way to its eventual destination in Korea -- Smith said Tuesday that the Xiang Yun Kou had moved out of the Bering Sea and that the "transport is going well."

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com