Alaska News

Desperate scramble to save the Kulluk before it grounded near Kodiak

On the two-year anniversary of the Kodiak-area grounding of the Kulluk, Shell's Arctic drill rig, Seattle journalist McKenzie Funk published "Of Ice and Men," an e-book detailing missteps and heroism in the run-up to the high-profile shipwreck. What follows is an excerpt. To download the full story for Kindle, iPad, or iPhone, or to read online, visit www.decastories.com. (Alaska Dispatch News readers can take $2 off a subscription to Deca with the coupon code "ADNreader.")

The Kulluk, Shell Oil's Arctic drill rig, was "like a Weeble," says tugboat engineer Craig Matthews -- like one of those egg-shaped, roly-poly toys from the 1970s. "Weebles wobble," the catchphrase went, "but they don't fall down."

The rig was "like a frickin' bottle top," said a Coast Guard rescue pilot -- "like a Fisher-Price toy." "Like a floating top," another proposed. "Just massive," said a third. Rimmed in 1.5-inch-thick steel, built with an unusual round hull to help prevent it from being crushed in sea ice, the Kulluk was 250 feet tall and weighed half as much as the Titanic. It had no propulsion of its own. Transporting it was "like towing a large saucer for a tea cup," said the mariner Shell hired to drag it to Alaska. It was "like a buoy the size of a football field," said one of the Coast Guard rescue swimmers who helped save its crew of 18 men.

Matthews doesn't remember how long he slept on New Year's Eve 2012, the day he was ordered to save his crew's life by cutting the Kulluk loose. He just remembers what woke him. He keeps his stateroom on the Alert, one of Crowley's escort tugs working Prince William Sound, tied down. But suddenly books and pens and water bottles were loose and sliding across the floor. His corkboard dislodged from a wall and crashed down. An alarm sounded.

Still groggy, he wondered why his captain, Rodney Layton, one of the most experienced tug operators in Alaska, had been so scared by a falling corkboard. He called up on the intercom. "Is there an emergency?" he asked. "Yes!" came Layton's response. Following protocol, he grabbed his waterproof, bright-orange survival suit and rushed up to the wheelhouse. The rest of the crew stared wide-eyed at Matthews and the suit, wondering what the tug's engineer knew that they didn't. A deckhand sat on the floor, trying not to look out the windows.

Towing the Kulluk through the storm in tandem with the giant anchor handler Shell had ordered custom-built in Louisiana, the smaller Alert had been overpowered and become locked almost perpendicular to the gale-force winds. It was slamming sideways into the troughs of the waves. Layton made an urgent call to the other tug, which maneuvered closer to the Alert. The two were just coming back together when the larger tug's cable snapped for the third and final time in three days. The Alert slid back into place ahead of the Kulluk, suddenly facing the waves and winds head on. "It was immediately so much better," Matthews said. "The only problem was that we were now the sole tow."

In the beam of the Alert's spotlight, he and the other men could see 2,800 feet of tow wire jerking out of the water and vibrating under the tension between. They worried the wire would break and snap back at them. Winds hit 50 knots, Matthews recalls, and "seas 35 feet." Though the Alert was straining to keep the Kulluk moving forward, "we were going backward" -- pulled by the massive rig as it was pushed by the wind -- "at 2 knots."

Sitkalidak Island, next to Kodiak, was little more than 10 miles downwind. From that moment on, the wind and current would push the Kulluk inevitably toward the shore, dragging the Alert along behind.

The call came from Shell at 8 p.m.: Cut it loose.

In a hurried conversation by satellite phone, Matthews' bosses suggested that he cut the thick cable with an acetylene torch tied to a broomstick. When he peered out the back window at his tow winch, where the cable was attached, 3 feet of water was surging over the tug's weather deck. He put on foul-weather gear and tried to time the waves. The first one came over his chest and filled his boots and pants. But he got an idea: If he let the winch unspool all the way, all that would connect the Alert to the Kulluk would be a metal plate and two bolts. They wouldn't hold.

The control room filled with smoke and rust dust as Matthews let the winch spin. The tug crashed through waves.

"Is it gone yet?" Layton asked. Matthews had three wraps left. He was trying to avoid a rat's nest of cable.

"Is it gone yet?" Layton asked again. "Is it gone? Let it go!" There was a loud boom and a shower of sparks. Then the Kulluk was gone.

Matthews turned to see why the captain, so steady under pressure, sounded so anxious. He found himself staring at a wall of water -- a 50-foot wave, the biggest they'd seen. The Alert went straight up its face. "There was this feeling of up and up and up and up and up and up," Matthews said. He put his hands against the back window to stabilize himself. White water was running over the front window. They couldn't see anything.

Then, at the top of the monster swell, they could suddenly see for miles. "This incredible moon was out," Matthews said. "There was this oceanscape. These mountains of water. Storm clouds. It was a thing of awesome beauty." It lasted for only a second or two. Then the Alert tipped down the other side, and the whole tug shuddered as it dove into the trough. The window filled with the view below the waterline, a Pacific green.

They watched the Kulluk go in on the radar. It started out slow, but let loose from its tether, it could only accelerate. It hit the gravelly shore of Sitkalidak 45 minutes later. Waves crashed over its deck, the wind kicked up a spray, and the shoreline was soon littered with its lifeboats and life jackets and hundreds of little silver packets of drinking water meant for men lost at sea. In the early hours of New Year's Day, the Coast Guard flew over the wreck. In aerial photos published around the world, the Kulluk was dwarfed by the auburn, grass-covered hills of the uninhabited island where it had finally come to a rest.

National Magazine Award finalist McKenzie Funk, a contributor to The New York Times Magazine, National Geographic, Harper's, and Rolling Stone, is the author of "Windfall" (The Penguin Press, 2014) and a founding member of the journalism co-op Deca.

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McKenzie Funk

McKenzie Funk is the author of "Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming."

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