SEATTLE - Adding to a season full of headaches for Shell Alaska's debut offshore drilling program in the U.S. Arctic, the company's Kulluk drill rig was stuck in monster seas off the coast of Alaska Friday as its tugboat's engines failed and the Coast Guard cutter that came to assist became entangled in a tow line.
There were no immediate threats to crew or equipment, but Shell Alaska was rushing additional aid vessels to the scene as the Kulluk, which drilled the beginnings of an exploratory oil well in the Beaufort Sea over the summer, sat without ability to move forward in 20-foot seas about 50 miles south of Kodiak.
"You become at the mercy of the seas when you don't have propulsion. The boat is going to go where the seas push it," Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class David Mosley told the Los Angeles Times. "Twenty-foot seas, my office here, the ceilings are 10 feet high, and you're looking at double that."
Shell Alaska officials said emergency power generators were enabling the tug vessel, the Aiviq, to avoid significant drift, even with the 266-foot Kulluk drilling barge, which does not have its own propulsion engines, in tow.
Coast Guard officials said the Aiviq, which had been towing the Kulluk south from Dutch Harbor, Alaska, after the close of the drilling season, experienced not only tow line problems but "multiple engine failures," and the Coast Guard cutter Alex Haley was deployed to try to help.
"They were towing in some heavy weather, and they lost the tow (line) between the Kulluk and the Aiviq," Mosley said. "They were able to reconnect, and as they started to tow again, the two vessels ended up with some issues on board that directly affected their engines _ it sounds like it was a fuel issue. Not necessarily running out of fuel, but a fuel quality issue."
After working on the problem, he said, "They were able to get one engine back, which is giving them enough power to stay in their position, keep them from drifting anywhere."
Meanwhile, the Alex Haley had problems of its own when crew members attempted to attach a tow line from the Haley to one of the Shell vessels to help maintain positioning in the heavy seas.
"They were unsuccessful in doing that maneuver," Mosley said. The problem was compounded when the Haley's tow line got wrapped on one of the ship's own propellers. "It was the Alex Haley's tow line, and it is reported that one of the screws got fouled with the line," Mosley said, forcing the Haley to return to port.
"The Alex Haley is still maneuverable and operable, just at a limited capacity," he said.
A Coast Guard C-130 aircraft was sent from Kodiak to the scene to maintain a safety watch, while Shell dispatched additional vessels to help. "We are currently cascading assets into the theater to help secure the Aiviq and the Kulluk," Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said in an email.
However, the dispatch of those additional vessels is likely to delay the departure from Alaska of Shell's second Arctic drilling rig, the Noble Discoverer, which had been held up by the Coast Guard in Seward, Alaska because of reported "discrepancies" in its safety and pollution discharge equipment.
The Discoverer had been scheduled to depart Seward for Seattle for additional maintenance and adjustments, but Smith said the dispatch of Shell's response vessels to aid the Kulluk means the Discoverer will likely be delayed.
Smith said the company's main focus is the 17 crew members on board the Kulluk and the 24 aboard the Aiviq.
"Our priority remains the safety of our personnel and the environment," he said. "All of our efforts are dedicated to making sure the crews on these vessels are safe."