Alaska News

An Alaska nonprofit is developing a massive underwater parachute for big ships

A young Alaska maritime nonprofit is working on a way to stop large ships from drifting ashore when something goes wrong.

The Anchorage-based Alaska Maritime Prevention and Response Network is teaming up with a handful of other companies to develop a prototype of what is essentially a massive, underwater parachute, designed to slow or stop a large ship should something cause it to start drifting.

The network, established in 2011, helps vessels comply with federal regulations, and focuses on oil spill prevention and response. It's collaborating with Seattle-based Glosten, New Zealand-based Coppins Para Sea Anchors, Anchorage-based Global Diving and Salvage and Florida-based Reed Maritime LLC to design what it's calling an "emergency ship arrest system prototype," or a sea anchor.

Recently tested in the waters of Washington state's Puget Sound, the system is designed to buy time when a large vessel such as a cargo ship goes adrift due to propulsion or steering problems. It's geared toward preventing possible disasters in remote areas.

Since 2014, the network has been working on research and development of the parachute system, and has joined with the other companies to help with engineering and other parts of the project.

The parachute has two key goals: to reduce the drift speed of a ship by 50 percent, and to steady the bow by turning the ship into the direction of the wind and waves. Stabilizing the ship makes it easier for crews to carry out repairs.

In the successful Puget Sound test last summer, the inflated submarine parachute was hooked up by a long line to two tugboats that pulled full steam ahead, and they slowed to the point of essentially stopping. In September, the network plans to take the parachute out to the notoriously rough Bering Sea, off Alaska's coast, to be tested on a loaded container ship.


This might not be something ships would keep on board in case of emergencies. Network CEO Buddy Custard hopes that eventually businesses or agencies in the maritime industry will buy the systems to store them at ports around the world. The system could then be delivered to a vessel in distress by either another vessel or by aircraft in instances when a tugboat isn't available to help.

The network hopes such a system could help prevent incidents like the Selendang Ayu cargo ship running aground off Unalaska Island in 2004. That ship broke into two pieces, and spilled out oil and soybeans. Other ships have also gone adrift in Alaska waters. A Shell drilling rig, the Kulluk, grounded on an island in the Gulf of Alaska at the end of 2012.

Jim Butler, managing director of the network, said the idea to develop the system wasn't the result of any one incident, but pointed to the Selendang Ayu disaster as an example of something the parachute might prevent.

"Selendang Ayu drifted days before it ran aground," he said. "This could be one extra tool in the toolbox to help."

Overall, the system is a response to how much ship traffic there is in Alaska's often-remote waters and the harshness of the conditions.

"We see a high volume of vessel activity in Western Alaska," Butler said. "And because it's so remote, when a vessel has a problem and begins to drift, it's very difficult to get large assist vessels out to help it. The idea was to come up with a tool to buy time, for lack of a better term."

The next phase of the project will involve exploring different options for how to deploy the parachute, which weighs more than 2,000 pounds.

While sea anchor parachutes or canopies have long been a common way to slow down drifting ships, there hasn't been a parachute of this size to use for massive cargo ships traveling in Alaska's remote waters, Custard said.

"To use it on this scale for ships of this tonnage is very unique," he said.

There's still work left to do: The network and the companies it's working with are figuring out the best way to connect the parachute to different types and sizes of ships, and making sure the rigging doesn't damage the vessel.

Ships can't simply drop anchor in many situations when they're drifting because either the water is too deep, or there's a risk of the anchor snapping off because of how fast the ship is traveling.

So far, Butler said, the system has cost about $500,000 to develop. The network's revenue -- which comes from participant fees -- was about $7 million in 2014. More than 2,000 vessels are enrolled with the network, each paying annual fees between $1,200 and $6,000, based on the size of the vessel. Enrolling gives them access to the network's resources.

Annie Zak

Annie Zak was a business reporter for the ADN between 2015 and 2019.