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Shell offshore drilling vessel Noble Discoverer drifts near shore in Unalaska

Craig MedredAlaska Dispatch
Kristjan B. Laxfoss photo

Royal Dutch Shell's hopes to drill in Alaska's Arctic this summer have been hitting some hurdles lately, with potential problems arising with air permits, a hiccup over an oil-spill containment barge docked in Washington state and now, the drill ship Noble Discoverer came unexpectedly close to shore Saturday in Unalaska Bay on its eventual trek to the Arctic.

It was not immediately clear if the vessel had actually run aground.

Unalaska radio station KUCB reports that the Noble Discoverer began drifting toward shore sometime Saturday afternoon. A longshoreman quoted in the story said that he observed the vessel as neared shore and appeared to be dragging its anchor. 

KUCB reported that the Noble Discoverer "appears to have run aground in Unalaska on Saturday afternoon," and the Dutch Harbor Telegraph said that the vessel bumped into the beach.

However, the official report from the Coast Guard Saturday night estimated the vessel only came within 100 yards of shore, according to a spokeswoman. Photos posted to KUCB's Facebook page from Unalaska locals would seem to indicate the vessel came closer than that.

Shell Spokesman Curtis Smith, in a statement, also didn't say that the ship ran aground, but rather "stopped very near the coast," before it had to be pulled back out by a tug.

Below is Smith's full statement:

Today, while moored off the coast of Dutch Harbor, the Noble Discoverer drill ship drifted toward land and stopped very near the coast.  One of Shell's vessels, the Lauren Foss, then safely towed the Discoverer to its prior mooring position, and the ship’s engines were started.  Shell personnel are now evaluating the ship’s mooring system to determine why the vessel moved closer to shore.  As a precaution, we have activated a dive team to inspect the drill ship.

Smith added that inspection was to begin immediately. The Coast Guard is also looking into the incident.

According to U.S. Coast Guard spokeswoman Sara Francis, the dive team is expected to arrive in Dutch Harbor within the next day or so. 

"We are not aware of any injuries, pollution, or damage to the vessel at this time," Francis said.

She said that the Noble Discoverer drifted to about 175 yards offshore in the vicinity of Hog Island, in an area that she understood to have a soft seabed. The official report from the Dutch Harbor Command Center later revised that estimate to 100 yards from shore.

The wind was blowing at about 35 mph, which may have contributed to the anchor coming dislodged, she said.

"We received a report at about 5:18 p.m. that the anchor let go and they were traveling toward shore," Francis said. "They took quick action with the assistance of tugs to redirect and move the vessel away from shore."

She added that it didn't immediately appear that the vessel had run aground, and personnel aboard the ship didn't report feeling any impact. She said that the Coast Guard can now see the vessel from the office in Dutch Harbor, and would continue to monitor the situation.

She said that the vessel is now anchored further offshore, and may move to the Coast Guard pier for the inspection to take place.

Correction: This story initially reported that the Noble Discoverer had been anchored 175 yards offshore; it had actually been reported as having drifted 175 yards from shore. We regret the error.

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com