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Update: Coast Guard crews battling fierce storm while assisting Kulluk near Kodiak

USCGC Alex Haley (WMEC-39)
USCGC Alex Haley (WMEC-39) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Date: Dec. 29, 2012
Coast Guard District 17

JUNEAU, Alaska — Coast Guard crews continue to battle 20-30 foot seas and 30-40 knot winds while providing assistance to the crews of the Kulluk and its three support vessels, Guardsman, Aiviq and Nanuq near Kodiak, Alaska Saturday. Coast Guard crews in conjunction with Royal Dutch Shell are working together to ensure safety of life at sea for all involved and prevent the disabled vessels from running aground despite the extremely challenging weather.

Coast Guard MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crews from Air Station Kodiak delivered engine parts and technicians to the crew of the support vessel Aiviq, in 30 mph winds and 20-foot seas last night, so they could make repairs to the ships three damaged engines. These repairs have enabled Aiviq to hold position with Kulluk to keep both vessels from drifting closer to shoal waters near Kodiak. Additionally the Nanuq has established a towline to Kulluk and both Nanuq and Aiviq are working in tandem to keep Kulluk safely under control. Plans to evacuate non-essential personnel from Kulluk are being developed, however, the heavy seas are contributing to heavy rolling and pitching of the Kulluk making helicopter hoisting operations extremely dangerous.

"The weather on scene is testing the limits of our Coast Guard crews. The professionalism of our air crews and cutter men and women have prevented the situation from deteriorating further" said Rear Adm. Thomas Ostebo, commander 17th District in Juneau, Alaska. The 17th District is directing the rescue efforts involving multiple cutters, ships, and aircraft. "The 17th District is mobilizing all available cutters and aircraft in a layered response to ensure personnel safety for everyone on the disabled vessels and to prevent a potential grounding or environmental damage in the area," said  Ostebo.

Watchstanders at Coast Guard Sector Anchorage were initially contacted by the crew of the Aiviq, a 360-foot tug on Thursday who reported that their towing hawser linking them to Kulluk had parted in heavy seas casting the Kulluk adrift. Aiviq was able to reestablish the two with another emergency towing hawser but subsequently experienced total engine failure casting both Aiviq and Kulluk adrift in the heavy seas and strong winds. Royal Dutch Shell directed the launch of the Guardsman and the Nanuq and Coast Guard 17th District directed the crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Alex Haley to divert from their patrol to provide assistance. The Alex Haley is a 282 foot medium endurance cutter homeported in Kodiak.

The Alex Haley arrived at the Aiviq’s location early Friday and successfully delivered a towline to the Aiviq which was still connected to Kulluk in strengthening 40 mph winds and building 35-foot seas at approximately 4:30 a.m. The Alex Haley was able to establish a tandem tow of Aivig and Kulluk preventing further drift of the disabled vessels towards shoal water. The heavy seas, strong winds, and sheer mass of both Aiviq and Kulluk created enormous challenges for Alex Haley to establish and maintain the tow. At approximately 6:30 a.m. the crew of the Alex Haley reported that the towline had parted and become entangled in the ship’s port propeller. The command directed the ship to return to Kodiak in order to make repairs. The tow line between Alex Haley and Aiviq parted due to the heavy strain created by the wind, seas, and displacement of Aiviq and Kulluk, however the effort by Alex Haley slowed the drift towards shoal water and bought extremely valuable time to enable further rescue options. "I applaud the can-do spirit of the crew of the Alex Haley. They accomplished the nearly impossible given the weather conditions and bought valuable time. Without their efforts the overall situation would be much worse than it is now," said Ostebo.

A Coast Guard HC-130 crew from Kodiak was launched from Air Station Kodiak to monitor the situation and the Coast Guard Cutter Hickory in Homer was launched to provide on scene support. Subsequently, Coast Guard Cutter Spar from Kodiak was launched and is en route the scene to assist.

The crew of the Guardsman arrived at the Aiviq’s location at approximately 1:30 p.m. Friday and successfully took the Aviq and Kulluk in tow. The tow by Guardian was not able to overcome the drift created by the strong winds and seas. However at approximately 5:30 a.m. Saturday, the crew of the Guardsman reported that their towline to the Aiviq had parted and they were unable to re-establish the tow because of on scene weather conditions. "The multiple towline failures only highlight the extremely challenging situation created by the winds, seas, and sheer bulk of the Kulluk. I applaud the efforts of all the vessels on scene and their courage in the face of almost impossible odds," said Ostebo.

The Coast Guard, Royal Dutch Shell, State, federal, and local officials in Kodiak have stood up a unified command to be prepared in case any of the vessels run aground and potentially release any fuel. The unified command is closely monitoring the overall rescue operation and is preparing for any eventuality.

At approximately 9 p.m. Friday, Royal Dutch Shell contacted the Coast Guard and requested the removal of the crew from the Kulluk due to safety concerns for the personnel onboard in the rolling and pitching vessel in heavy seas. Additionally, Royal Dutch Shell requested delivery of parts to the Aiviq so they could make repairs to their engines. Aiviq's engine failures were attributed to some poor quality fuel that had been isolated. Repairing Aiviq's engines became the priority because Aiviq is the only vessel available on scene capable of towing Kulluk. The tug Alert from Prince William Sound is also capable to towing the Kulluk and will arrive on scene mid-day on Sunday.

Two Coast Guard MH-60 helicopters crews were launched at approximately 10:30 p.m to attempt the evacuation of the personnel from the Kulluk but were unable to hoist the crew because the 50 mph winds and 20 foot seas were causing the Kulluk to pitch and roll to such a degree that hoisting the personnel was too dangerous.

At approximately 5 a.m. Saturday, a MH-60 helicopter crew successfully completed the first delivery of engine parts to the crew of the Aiviq who began making repairs.

At approximately 7 a.m., Coast Guard MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crews from Air Station Kodiak completed the delivery of engine parts to the crew of the support vessel Aiviq, in 30 mph winds and 20-foot seas. The total amount of repair parts delivered by helicopter is over 2000 lbs.

At approximately 9:30 a.m., the crew of the Aiviq was able to successfully make repairs to the ships damaged engine with the Coast Guard delivered parts and were able to keep the Kulluk from drifting closer to shoal waters.