Royal Dutch Shell officials say maintenance was one of the main reasons the Kulluk -- the conical drilling rig that ran aground near Kodiak Island on New Year's Eve -- needed to be moved to Seattle, across the Gulf of Alaska in the middle of winter. Since the Kulluk's grounding, some have posed questions over why the vessel needed to be moved at all, given the predictability of severe winter storms in the region.

The Kulluk -- a crucial piece of Shell's Arctic drilling operation -- ran aground last week after the Aiviq, the Shell-owned tug boat towing the vessel across the Gulf, had multiple engine and tow-line failures in succession. The massive Kulluk -- which has a gross tonnage of almost 56 million pounds and is about the length of a football field -- has no propulsion system of its own. During the rescue operation, several vessels struggled to control the Kulluk in 40-foot seas.

Few specifics are available on what type of maintenance the Royal Dutch Shell-owned conical drilling unit will undergo upon its arrival in Port of Everett, the third-largest container port in Washington state, servicing mainly the oil, gas, gold and aerospace industries. Vigor Marine, the company that performed upgrades on the Kulluk and Noble Discoverer last summer, leases space from the port.

'Punch list'

Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said operators made a "punch list" before leaving Dutch Harbor on Dec. 22 of possible improvements and upgrades to be completed before the start of the 2013 drilling season this summer.

Smith declined to elaborate on that list. Other Shell officials also declined to detail what maintenance was needed. Sean Churchfield, Shell operations manager, said the reason the Kulluk was moved in mid-winter to was give Shell "maximum time" to prepare for the 2013 drilling season.

Inquiries to Shell headquarters in Houston were not returned Wednesday afternoon.

Logistical challenges

While Smith wouldn't elaborate on maintenance details, he would elaborate on Shell's reasoning for leaving Dutch Harbor, the busiest fishing port in the United States in terms of total fish brought into port, and famous as the backdrop for the Discovery Channel's "Deadliest Catch."

Smith said that while Shell would have liked to have stayed in Dutch Harbor to perform maintenance on the Kulluk, that was a challenge logistically. Weather in Unalaska can be unpredictable. Skilled workers have to be flown in to the small Aleutian island community of 4,500 people, and weather delays are typical.

"That doesn't work on a maintenance schedule that needs to be as predictable as possible," Smith said.

Getting workers on those flights might have been a challenge, too. Flights are usually fully booked well in advance according to city manager Chris Hladick. Fishing season starts in mid-January and the community sees a massive influx of people.

"There's no unemployment in Unalaska," he said.

Dock space tight

Due to that influx, housing is hard to come by. Hladick said last winter Shell considered bringing a barge to town just to house crew members working on its drilling fleet.

Fishing also limits dock availability. Hladick said Dutch Harbor docks are scheduled "down to the minute" up to two months in advance during the busy fishing season, which runs through the winter.

Given the conical shape of the Kulluk's hull, Shell built a dock in Dutch Harbor specifically for the vessel in 2010. Smith said that dock was built in the hope that more Kulluk maintenance could be completed in Dutch Harbor, but other logistical concerns made that difficult.

"It just doesn't make sense for these rigs at this time," Smith said.

Hladick said it's been a struggle for the port to try to balance what type of infrastructure it needs. Though geared toward fishing today, there's no reason Dutch Harbor couldn't be focused on oil fields one day.

"(The logistics) just aren't there right now, not that they couldn't be set up in the future," Hladick said. "People aren't going to pull the trigger on investments in building infrastructure if there's no oil field."

That was a sentiment Sen. Lisa Murkowski echoed in an interview with Alaska Dispatch Monday. She specifically pointed out that there's no reason a port like Seward, located on the Kenai Peninsula, 1,000 miles northeast of Dutch Harbor, couldn't one day be more of a maritime center. The Noble Discoverer -- which serves as the back-up drill to the Kulluk and has suffered mechanical and permitting problems of its own -- is docked in Seward right now.

"Maybe (Alaska's) come of age where we don't need to rely on Seattle," Murkowski said. "My hope is Shell is looking critically at that."

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)