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Engine failure plagued Kulluk tug, Aiviq, prior to rig's grounding

Suzanna Caldwell
The Arctic Challenger, a barge Royal Dutch Shell is renovating to use in Arctic drilling operations.
Courtesy Shell Oil
Rear Adm. Thomas Ostebo, 17th Coast Guard District commander, Capt. Paul Mehler, federal on-scene coordinator for the Kulluk mishap, and Sean Churchfield, Shell’s incident commander, discuss the situation with Sen. Lisa Murkowski on Jan. 1, 2013.
USGS Petty Officer 1st Class Matthew Schofield photo
The Arctic Challenger with the newly redesigned and repaired Containment Dome move away from the Port of Bellingham, Wash. on Dec. 12. The challenger had been moored since returning in September 2012 after a catastrophic failure of the first iteration of their containment process.
TJ Guiton photo
Approximate location where Royal Dutch Shell's drilling ship Kulluk grounded on Sitkalidak Island, Alaska.
Coast Guard photo via Ground Trekking Truth
A night shot of the workers and equipment showing a markedly armored containment dome to replace the one which suffered a catastrophic failure in September 2012 during the initial testing process in calm, predictable conditions in the Salish Sea off of Anacortes, WA. Note the lateral ribs surrounding the upper portion of the dome as well as the outer steel plates to protect the dome from damage and enhance the strength of the structure to the pressures of ocean depths.
TJ Guiton
Ocean Bay on Sitkalidak Island in Alaska, located close to Kodiak Island's southeast shore.
Stacy Studebaker, Kodiak Audubon Society photo
Shell Oil tests their "capping stack" in Everett, Washington on June 25, 2012.
Courtesy Shell Oil
The west end of Sitkalidak Island's shore Ocean Beach, where shoals are visible beneath the waves. Sitkalidak Island is located near Kodiak Island, Alaska.
Creative Commons photo via Ground Truth Trekking
Shell Oil's spill response gear staged in Wainwright. Summer 2011.
Ben Anderson photo
A Coast Guard MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crew evacuates 18 crewmen from Shell Oil's drilling ship Kulluk in 15 to 20-foot seas, 80 miles southwest of Kodiak, Alaska, on Dec. 29, 2012.
Coast Guard photo
Greenpeace boat crew protest at Shell drill ship Noble Discoverer anchored near Dutch Harbor, Unalaska, Alaska. August 5, 2012
Jiri Rezac / Greenpeace
A Coast Guard HC-130 Hercules aircraft from Air Station Kodiak overflies the tugs Aiviq and Nanuq tandem towing the mobile drilling unit Kulluk 116 miles southwest of Kodiak City, Alaska, Sunday, Dec. 30, 2012. The tug Alert from Prince William Sound and the Coast Guard Cutter Alex Haley from Kodiak are en route to assist.
US Coast Guard photo
Fennica, a Finnish icebreaker contracted to Shell's Arctic project, in Dutch Harbor, Alaska.
Shell photo
Royal Dutch Shell's Kulluk drillship in the Beaufort Sea in fall 2012.
Royal Dutch Shell photo
Curtis Smith, spokesperson for Shell Oil. June 1, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
The anchor-handling vessel, the Alert, tows the drilling unit Kulluk to a safe harbor location in Kiliuda Bay, Alaska on Jan. 7, 2013. Photo by U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Klingenberg.
US Coast Guard photo
Shell Oil's Kulluk platform, in Seattle, May 25, 2012.
Courtesy Senator Begich's office
Shell's Aiviq support vessel in Dutch Harbor, Alaska.
Shell photo
The drilling unit Kulluk, towed by the anchor-handling vessel Aiviq, heads to its safe harbor location in Kiliuda Bay.
Courtesy Shell
Shell Oil Alaska vice president Pete Slaiby listens to David Hayes, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, speaking at the Arctic Imperative Summit. August 26, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
The drilling unit Kulluk, towed by the anchor-handling vessel Aiviq, heads to its safe harbor location in Kiliuda Bay.
Courtesy Shell
Royal Dutch Shell has already begun studying land and sea features to determine the best route and depth to place at least 400 miles of pipelines that can carry crude oil to the trans-Alaska pipeline. The company is considering several options across a wide swath of ocean and tundra. This map was created to provide a general idea of the direction those pipelines will take.
Aaron Jansen illustration
The Kulluk drill rig near Sitkalidak Island off Kodiak
USCG photo
The Shell drilling vessel Noble Discoverer came close to shore in Unalaska on Saturday, July 14.
Kristjan B. Laxfoss photo
The Kulluk drill rig off Kodiak Island on Jan. 2, 2013
USCG photo
Shell Oil's 514-foot drill ship Noble Discoverer sits 68 miles west of Nome on Aug. 29, 2012.
U.S. Coast Guard photo
Shell Oil's drill rig Kulluk, grounded off Kodiak Island by an Arctic storm it was supposed to be built to withstand
Shell Oil's exploratory drilling platform departs Seattle for Alaska on June 27, 2012.
Courtesy Vigor Industrial
Royal Dutch Shell's drilling ship, the Kulluk, grounded at remote Sitkalidak Island in Alaska on Jan. 1, 2013.
Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Sara Francis footage
The Arctic Challenger was occupied by Caspian terns while docked in Southern California in 2007.
John Potter / California DFG
Waves crash over the mobile offshore drilling unit Kulluk where it sits aground on the southeast side of Sitkalidak Island, Alaska, Jan. 1, 2013.
U.S. Coast Guard photo

The man in charge of overseeing operations for moving Shell Oil's Arctic drill, the Kulluk, testified before the Coast Guard Marine Casualty hearing Friday, explaining his company's decision to tow the ill-fated conical rig in late December 2012.

Much of the testimony from Shell Alaska Marine Manager John Kaighin focused on the tow plan between the Kulluk and its tug, the Aiviq, for the rig's journey across the Gulf of Alaska. But the rig never made it; instead, a series of events – a horrendous winter storm, multiple tow line disconnections and failure of the Aiviq's engines – caused the 266-foot diameter drill rig to run aground off of Sitkalidak Island late New Year's Eve 2012.

While Kaighin offered insights into the technicalities, he delivered few new specifics on what led to the grounding of the rig hours before the beginning of 2013.

But when asked whether it was “bad luck” or an “act of God” that led to series of events that led to Kulluk's eventual grounding, Kaighin disagreed.

“I think bad luck … you give it a name for some reason,” he told investigators. “They were operational failures that we basically worked through to solve."

BACKGROUND: TRIALS, MISHAPS OF SHELL'S ARCTIC DRILL RIG, THE KULLUK

Kaighin was repeatedly asked about the events leading up to the shackle failure on the Kulluk. The shackle's parting was the first in a series of events that led the Kulluk's grounding on Dec. 27. Kaighin was repeatedly asked questions on weather history, tow plans, warrant assessments and Shell management involving the tow. Little of it offered new insights into the operation.

Kaighin did note that the towing gear, which had been used to tow the rigs from Seattle to Dutch Harbor and up to Deadhorse in the earlier season, was rated to withstand both winter and summer travel.

He noted that the shackles were not strength-tested in Dutch Harbor prior to departing for Seattle. They were visually inspected, he said, as per standard practice.

Aiviq engine failure

But testimony Friday indicated there were problems with the Aiviq's engines as well, according to Tracy Chouest, operations manager in Alaska for the tug's builder, Louisiana-based Edison Chouest.

On its return trip from the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, the Aiviq suffered a short power blackout – about five minutes – followed by the failure of an engine, which the crew was not able to bring back online while at sea. Still, with two engines running drive shafts on each side of the boat, it never impacted the movement of the Kulluk.

“We never lost propulsion during the tow,” Chouest testified.

That was about 10 days before the ship reached Dutch Harbor. It arrived on Nov. 22. A month later, engine running again, the Aiviq departed for Seattle towing the Kulluk.

Testimony marked day five of hearings conducted by investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Engineering, the Marshall Islands -- flag state of the Kulluk – and lawyers from all interested parties.

The Coast Guard, led by Cmdr. Josh McTaggart, is in the process of conducting a marine casualty hearing on the Kulluk. The group hopes to uncover what went wrong and, ultimately, who is responsible for the grounding of the conical drilling unit, considered a centerpiece of Shell's Arctic drilling operation.

All of Shell's drilling plans off Alaska's Arctic coasts have been suspended for the year.

Any recommendations from the hearing will be passed on to Rear Adm. Thomas Ostebo, who will decide whether or not to make changes to regulations or pursue criminal charges.

Testimony continues Saturday.

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com