The Noble Drilling Corp. manager overseeing Shell's Kulluk drilling rig on what turned into a harrowing December trip across the Gulf of Alaska told a Coast Guard panel Wednesday that given the troubles, the rig should be towed with two vessels, at least in winter.
"Knowing what we know now, we know we should have had another tug boat there," Todd Case, a Noble rig manager, testified. Multiple vessels are needed, he said.
Case's testimony provides the first account from the sea about the circumstances leading up to and after the Dec. 31 grounding of the Kulluk. The Coast Guard is investigating the events, including failures in tow lines, at a hearing that began Monday and is scheduled through May 31. It is taking place in the Anchorage Assembly chambers at Loussac Library.
The Kulluk left Dutch Harbor Dec. 21 under tow by a special-built vessel, the Aiviq, for what was supposed to be a weeks-long journey to a Seattle-area shipyard after the 2012 drilling season.
Case said he also rode on the Kulluk for an earlier, summer trip north from Dutch Harbor to the drilling site in the Beaufort Sea. On the way, Kulluk and Aiviq ran into violent weather in the Chukchi Sea. But that time, the tow held.
The first few days of the transit south were uneventful, Case said. They left port with a four-day window of good weather. They barbecued on the deck Christmas Day.
Then the weather started to pick up and after the tow gear to the Aiviq broke on Dec. 27, one thing after another went wrong.
Other vessels came to help but emergency tow systems or those rigged on the spot failed. The Aiviq temporarily lost engine power. An anchor was mistakenly dropped.
"We never had full control once the primary tow line parted," Case testified. "We were always slipping backwards."
Kulluk and Aiviq crews were able to use winches to collect their ends of the parted tow gear. The Aiviq crew discovered that a huge shackle was missing.
No one on the investigation panel asked Case why the crews didn't try to replace the shackle and repair the original tow system -- designed for the Kulluk -- at sea. He declined to be interviewed after his testimony but his attorney, Brian Doherty of Anchorage, explained that the heavy tow gear required cranes to move and it was too risky to do that during the storm.
As the Kulluk got close to land and an initial evacuation attempt by helicopter proved too perilous, Case said, the life rafts were considered a risky last resort. There was uncertainty a survival boat could be launched "without hurting somebody, without killing somebody," he said.
"As heavy as the seas were -- the boat could have been launched. It could have got sucked up under the concave of the rig. The rig could have smashed down on it," Case testified. "Lots of variables in there."
The Aiviq soon reconnected with an emergency tow rope and it was able use thrusters to stay in position. Another vessel, the Guardsman, arrived and got a tow line to the Aiviq. The Coast Guard delivered parts for engine repairs.
At one point, Case said, while the Kulluk was connected to the disabled Aiviq which in turn was connected to the Guardsman, two of his crew members mistakenly dropped anchor. They were supposed to wait for an order in the event of another broken tow line. But at that point, with three vessels tied together and only one fully powered, a sudden anchor drop could have led to an even bigger problem -- "the anchor catching and everybody piling up on each other," Case said.
The anchor didn't catch then, nor did it catch later when it was intentionally deployed to try and stop the Kulluk's drift to shore.
The crew had never practiced for a helicopter evacuation. The Kulluk's unique design complicated that effort.
The saucer-shaped vessel has a big derrick in the center and rigging equipment around the edges. It's 266 feet in diameter and weighs more than 30,000 tons. During the initial attempt, the wind was blowing toward the derrick along the helicopter-approach path, and the deck was heaving up and down 50 feet. The Coast Guard asked whether the derrick could come down to clear the way. But it was permanently affixed. That rescue attempt was called off.
On Dec. 29, with a slight break in the weather, a second helicopter rescue attempt by the Coast Guard succeeded in plucking all 18 people off the Kulluk. They included two Shell employees, the tow master, a medic and the Noble drilling crew. It was unmanned when it grounded two days later.
Keith Fawcett, a Coast Guard investigator, asked Case about an item in the Kulluk operations manual that specified the vessel's tolerance for pitching and rolling while under tow. The manual said in rough weather, if the pitching and rolling movement regularly exceeded 6 degrees, the towing vessel should slow down or even stop.
Kulluk log notes show that the pitch and roll as the situation deteriorated was 8 to 10 degrees and occasionally up to 15 degrees.
Case said he didn't know whether the tow master, who ultimately had authority for the rig under tow, knew about the 6-degree limit. He testified later during follow-up questioning by Coast Guard Cmdr. Joshua McTaggart that he himself was unaware of it.
But, he said, everyone knew the tow ship needed to slow down in rough weather.
On Dec. 27, before the tow line broke, the rig wasn't rocking hard and fast but riding along giant swells.
"It was a long swell. It was not a violent pitching and rolling. The rig was moving, but was moving pretty slow."
In the worst of it, the crew was kept indoors. They didn't cook and ate cold sandwiches.
While Case testified that multiple boats could have prevented the grounding, the captain of a tug that later came to help said it was challenging to control in pitching seas with two vessels.
Rodney Layton captained the Alert, a Crowley Marine Services vessel diverted from Prince William Sound to where the Kulluk was floundering south of Kodiak Island. After hours of trying, both the Aiviq and the Alert were able to attach tow lines to the Kulluk.
The vessels were coming off swells at different times. At one point, he testified, they got so close "I sounded the general alarm, mustered all hands in the wheelhouse and turned the Alert hard to port."
After the Aiviq again lost its tow line, Layton tried to direct the Kulluk to ground on a beach rather than rocks but couldn't.
"It was going to go where it wanted to go," Layton said.
The evening of Dec. 31, he got a call from Shell's marine manager, John Kaighin, who told him to let the Kulluk go. He made him repeat that. Just after 8 p.m., the Alert released the last tow line to the Kulluk.
"I never had to do that in my life," Layton said, "let one go."
Reach Lisa Demer at email@example.com or 257-4390.
By LISA DEMER