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Rural Alaska

Teamwork halts Aleutians ship disaster

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This is the story of the bulk carrier Golden Seas, disabled and drifting in the chaos of the Bering Sea, and the men who went out and rescued her. I hope I do them justice.

The 738-foot ship with 20 crew members was loaded with canola seeds and full of bunker fuel having left British Columbia earlier in the week. In the wee hours of the morning of Dec.3 and not far northwest of Adak Island, they lost power when the turbocharger failed, and, slowly but surely, started drifting toward Atka Island in gale-force winds and monstrous seas.

As the District 17 U.S. Coast Guard Command Center began to gather critical information, it became clear that the best information with which to plan a response and the best chance at the successful rescue of the ship would come from the Port of Dutch Harbor over 400 miles away.

At 7:50 that morning, captain Carter Whalen of the Alaska Marine Pilots advised the Coast Guard that the Tor Viking II, the ocean-going tug under contract to Shell Oil, was in Dutch Harbor, and that AMP captains Clayton Christy and John Schibel were on site and ready to assist. At this time, the ship was not visible on the AIS system via the marine exchange, which would be very helpful later, and it was the local, regional knowledge of the Alaska Marine Pilots that would help plan the best track for a timely rescue effort, given the sea conditions, the distance to the stricken ship, and the speed of the Tor Viking II.

Tug on the way

John Kaighin, the Shell Oil vessel manager who was onsite in Dutch Harbor to oversee the movement of the drill rig, Kulluk, to her winter berth at OSI, was contacted to see if he would release the Tor Viking II and allow captain Finn Jorgensen and his crew to steam as quickly as possible to the Golden Seas in an attempt to keep her from grounding on a remote island in our national maritime refuge. It didn't take many minutes to get the unqualified "Yes" from Shell Oil needed to get going. Captains Christy and Schibel strongly recommended that the rescue tug pick up the state's ETS (Emergency Towing System) stored in Dutch Harbor and spend the next several hours looking at weather, likely location of landfall, charts, current predictions in the passes, and the best possible utilization of the Golden Seas ground tackle to buy time if the ship was unable to regain propulsion before the arrival of the Tor Viking II.

AMP captain Christy then packed a bag and joined captain Jorgensen onboard the Tor Viking II to assist with on-scene communications with the distressed vessel, and provide his local knowledge of the best route and his anchoring expertise. At the same time, Coast Guard MST1 Jason Rendon, who was onboard the Redeemer the night the Selendang Ayu went aground, volunteered to be the Federal on Site Command (FOSC) representative and packed his bag as well.

The ETS was loaded, and ports harbor master John Days briefed the crew on the system and the ResQmax line gun. A meeting of the DEC, Coast Guard, Alaska Marine Pilots, and the city of Unalaska the morning of Dec. 4 produced the draft port of refuge plan that would bring the ship to Unalaska for repairs instead of Adak or Akutan. Because the ship could not safely cross the bar into Dutch Harbor to reach the Coast Guard dock, the decision was made to look at bringing her through the cut to anchor in Captains Bay or anchoring in the shelter between Hog Island and Broad Bay. Weather, sea state, and the draft of the vessel would be taken into consideration by captains Christy and Jorgensen to make the final call when they arrived with the Golden Seas.

Good news

A satellite phone call from Christy onboard the Tor Viking II brought good news: the tug was making 13 knots in almost 30-foot seas and should meet with the distressed vessel by suppertime on Dec. 4. He was extremely impressed with the seamanship and determination of Jorgensen and his crew, and they were taking every short-cut that Capt. Christy and Capt. Schibel, (who was back in Unalaska and running on no sleep), could identify for the 400-mile run. The tug and crew had a brutal 40-hour transit that caused minor damage to the Tor Viking II and made sleep almost impossible as they made all possible haste to respond.

Thankfully, all went according to plan.

The Tor Viking II, using the state's ETS, gained possession of the Golden Seas early in the evening of the Dec. 4, hooked it into the tow wire, and started the 400-mile voyage back to safe shelter with the Coast Guard cutter Alex Haley accompanying and a CG C-130 overhead. Christy made the recommendation to get out of the severe sea state and route the ship south through Amukta Pass, staying south of the chain until transiting Unimak Pass and into Broad Bay. Jorgensen and crew agreed, and did an outstanding job towing a fully loaded bulk carrier through two passes and into safe harbor the morning of Dec. 6.

Staving off disaster

This emergency situation could have been a real disaster at any point in those four days, but a few key elements really helped make the difference. The engineers onboard the Golden Seas scrambled to provide limited, but critical power to the vessel just hours before it would have run aground, enabling them to regain steerage to move north from the islands as much as possible in case they lost all power again.

They did so under extremely difficult circumstances, and they deserve recognition for avoiding what would have been a devastating environmental disaster for Atka Island and the region that night. The availability of the Tor Viking II was a godsend; no other tug in the area could have made that run as fast as she did, or tow a vessel of that size through the non-stop gale force winds and high seas.

Shell Oil made a very quick decision to send an extremely valuable and busy asset, the Tor Viking II, into what was a risky and dangerous state of affairs because they knew that they were the best chance that we had for a positive outcome. They were supported in this decision by the owners of the Tor Viking II, TransAtlantic, based in Sweden, and justifiably proud of the performance of their fine crew.

The professional, regional knowledge of the waters from Dutch Harbor to Adak by the Alaska Marine Pilots, and their years of on-the-water experience throughout the Aleutian Island Chain were a hugely valuable tool for the planning and execution of this successful rescue and safe haven. This is their backyard, and they know almost every inch of it. The Emergency Towing System stored in Dutch Harbor and used every summer as a practice drill and procedure checklist turned out to be the ticket when the tug arrived on site.

Jorgensen said that it was a very effective way to get control of the vessel, and worked perfectly with the tug's tow wire as it was designed to do. Lt. Mark Labert, MSD Unalaska supervisor, used very bit of local expertise available to ensure that the most efficient and responsible port of refuge plan was drafted, provided a briefing every day at 4 at City Hall, and was an organized and capable local manager of the situation throughout.

Just doing their job

The crews of the two Coast Guard helos that flew from Kodiak to Dutch Harbor, standing by to either fly the second ETS to the vessel in gale-force winds, or rescue the 20 crew members of the Golden Seas in an emergency situation, will tell you that they were just doing their job, but what a job it is, and they do it so very well.

The happy end of the story is that with focused teamwork from the very beginning, the ideal tug and crew available, the ETS and good fortune, we saw the healthy Golden Seas sail from our port the Dec. 13.

"Semper paratus" is the Coast Guard motto, meaning "always prepared," and I think that is a good motto for the Port of Dutch Harbor as well.

Because of our strategic location on the Great Circle Route, we will always be waiting for the next disabled or distressed vessel somewhere along the Aleutian Chain, and we will need to be as prepared as possible so that elusive and ever changing "window of opportunity" has the best chance for a positive outcome. It is with great admiration and sincere appreciation that I thank everyone involved in making this a happy ending.

Shirley Marquardt is the mayor of Unalaska. This story is posted with permission from Alaska Newspapers Inc., which publishes six weekly community newspapers, a statewide shopper, a statewide magazine and slate of special publications that supplement its products year-round.

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