On their interrupted December voyage, Shell's Kulluk drilling rig and its tow ship, the Aiviq, experienced a terrible trifecta of bad weather, failed tow gear and the temporary loss of all four engines on the Aiviq.
Shouldn't Royal Dutch Shell and its contractor have accounted for that possibility? That angle was pursued Friday during Day 5 of a Coast Guard marine casualty hearing into the Dec. 31 grounding of the Kulluk by Barry Strauch, the National Transportation Safety Board representative on the Coast Guard panel.
"Certainly, a lot happened on one voyage," Strauch said in questioning John Kaighin, Shell's marine manager for Alaska and the company official directly overseeing the transit. "Would you call that bad luck? Act of God?"
Kaighin said he didn't agree with those characterizations. "They are operational failures that we basically worked through to solve."
And all three problems didn't erupt at the same time, Kaighin noted. When the tow gear first failed Dec. 27, the Kulluk was adrift for three hours and 17 minutes before crews connected an emergency tow rope, he said. The vessels were connected when the Aiviq engines failed that night and into the next morning, he said. And the big storm didn't hit until a day or so later.
"Once we had the problem with propulsion, we didn't advance the tow as expected. We expected to be 400 miles away on the 31st," Kaighin said.
The night of the 31st, the Kulluk was being pounded by waves 35 feet high, and occasionally up to 45 feet, when it hit the rocks south of Kodiak Island.
A weather study Shell sought for the December trip listed a 1 percent chance of 35-foot seas, Strauch noted.
"Knowing what we know now, it seems like good planning would anticipate the 1 percent" -- the slim chance of big storm waves, said Strauch of the NTSB.
How, he asked, was that possibility factored into calculations for the strength of the tow gear?
Kaighin never gave a direct answer.
The tow setup or something similar had been used before with the Aiviq and the Kulluk, he said. Planning for the tow had started in January, nearly a year earlier. And Shell expected to be ahead of the bad weather.
"The weather conditions we encountered at that specific location ... that was not on our original tow route when we were basically trying to solve the problem with the Aiviq," Kaighin testified.
With the round Kulluk a unique vessel to tow, the Aiviq could only travel 4 mph or so. How, Strauch asked, could they could get out of the way of the weather?
They could slow down, Kaighin said. They could change direction. Or they could ride it out.
Key people with Shell as well as the contracted tow master and the warranty surveyor for its insurance carrier agreed to the tow plan, Kaighin testified.
Another Coast Guard panel member, Alan Blume, a marine casualty investigator for the Republic of the Marshall Islands, asked why the republic -- where the Kulluk is registered -- wasn't notified within 24 hours of the grounding, as required.
There was a lot going on but that was a mistake, Kaighin said. Shell is taking steps to make sure such a lapse doesn't happen again, he said.
The Kulluk and Aiviq left Dutch Harbor Dec. 21 for what was supposed to be a weeks-long journey to a Seattle shipyard. But after the initial tow gear failure, a series of systems rigged at sea also failed to hold the Kulluk to vessels that came to help.
Crews found that the first failure happened after a critical connecting shackle somehow fell off and disappeared at sea.
An earlier tow in November, from the Beaufort Sea drilling site to Dutch Harbor, also had problems, Tracy Chouest, Alaska operations manager for Aiviq owner Edison Chouest Offshore, testified. He's not part of the Chouest family that owns the Louisiana-based company, he said.
During the November tow, the Aiviq lost its generators and suffered a temporary power blackout, Chouest testified. An engine failed and couldn't be restarted. Crew members who testified earlier said they experienced violent seas on the journey north from Dutch Harbor.
Tracy Chouest was in Louisiana on vacation when the December troubles began but huddled with Gary Chouest, one of the company owners, and a Shell manager in a conference room to help manage the response. Gary Chouest spared no expense to get the Aiviq running, sending his jet to two cities to pick up spare fuel injectors, Tracy Chouest testified.
Earlier witnesses testified the tow gear was visually inspected in Dutch Harbor before the December transit and no defects or rust was seen.
Coast Guard investigator Keith Fawcett wanted to know more. "Did the gear go through non-destructive testing to see if it had suffered damage for cyclic loading?"
No, Kaighin testified.
The Coast Guard, meanwhile is doing its own tests on the primary tow gear that was recovered. No results have been released.
The hearing in the Anchorage Assembly chambers at Loussac Library continues Saturday with another Shell witness, Sean Churchfield. The panel is taking Sunday and Monday off, then it will run until May 31.
Reach Lisa Demer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4390.
By LISA DEMER