Grounded drilling unit Kulluk safely towed to Kiliuda Bay

ANCHORAGE, Alaska – After a Dec. 28 incident where the Aiviq (one of WorkBoat’s 2012 Significant Boats) lost power while towing the Kulluk Conical Drilling Unit roughly 50 miles off the coast of Kodiak Island, Alaska, the Kulluk sat grounded on the southeast side of Sitkalidak Island for roughly a week. Finally, yesterday, the drilling unit was refloated and reattached to the Aiviq, whose engines are again working properly. The Kulluk was towed some 45 miles, at an average speed of roughly 3.5 knots to Kiliuda Bay, where it arrived safely and will be more diligently inspected. 

The Coast Guard Cutter Alex Haley escorted the tow to Kiliuda Bay along with two oil spill response vessels and other support vessels. A 500-yard radius safety zone around the Kulluk followed the escort and remains in place in Kiliuda Bay.

The Unified Command released a 3D animation of the towing route for the Kulluk, which you can view here:


There were no personnel aboard the Kulluk, which is operated by Royal Dutch Shell, at the time of grounding, and no injuries have been reported in the incident as a whole, but there is as much as 150,000 gallons of ultra-low sulpher diesel on board the drilling unit, and roughly 12,000 gallons of combined lube oil and hydraulic fluid, so there was concern on many fronts that the Kulluk be salvaged without environmental incident or further damage to the drilling unit.

On Jan. 2, a team of five salvage experts, led by Smit Salvage, boarded the Kulluk to conduct a structural assessment to be used to finalize salvage plans, which was then developed by the Kulluk Tow Incident Unified Command, consisting of the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), Shell, Noble Drilling Contractor and Kodiak Island Borough.

All activities undertaken as part of the response are reviewed and approved by Unified Command. You can visit the website for frequent updates on the situation.

The salvage assessment lasted about three hours, according to a Coast Guard report, after which a helicopter hoisted the team from the drilling unit at about 1:30 p.m. The Coast Guard helicopter and crew also delivered a state-owned emergency towing system to the Kulluk, to be used during salvage operations.

Smit is described as “a highly experienced salvage company that has assisted in hundreds of operations worldwide, including the Selendang Ayu salvage that took place off the coast of Western Unalaska in 2004. It also assisted in the Costa Concordia salvage off the coast of Italy in 2012.”

The company was given the go ahead to on Jan. 6 to initiate a new Kulluk tow if conditions became favorable and at roughly 10 p.m. local time the Kulluk was refloated and the tow to Kiliuda Bay began. 

The Kulluk is a Polar Class 4 drilling unit, meaning that it is rated to operate year-round in Arctic climates, according to press information, with a main deck diameter of 266 feet. It originally became grounded after the anchor-handler Aiviq experienced multiple engine failures while towing the unit. Initial reports speculated that the engine-loss was caused by a bad batch of fuel, but that has yet to be confirmed by officials from either Shell, Edison Chouest, or the Coast Guard. 

The crew of the Aiviq reported they were able to restart one of the ship’s engines, and soon started to receive assistance from response vessels Guardsman and Nanuq, though weather was reported as 40 mph winds and 20-foot seas. (Shell has confirmed to the Alaska Dispatch that the timing of the move, during unfavorable weather, was motivated by a desire to save millions in taxes.)

The Cutter Alex Haley was the first on scene.

As of Dec. 30, Unified Command reported the Kulluk was still safely under tow, with the Aiviq and Nanuq now both towing. The tug Alert also arrived on scene, and with the Guardsman stayed in the area “as a vessel of opportunity.”

“I’m very pleased with the effort that’s taking place to ensure the safety of personnel and the environment in extremely challenging conditions. We continue to work with the U.S. Coast Guard, Edison Chouest Offshore, State of Alaska and response personnel to manage the situation,” said Sean Churchfield, Incident Commander, and Shell, in a release on Dec. 30.

Then, by the early morning of Dec. 31, the Alert joined with the Aiviq and the Nanuq was no longer towing. The Alert managed to secure a 400-foot line that had been used by the Aiviq to tow the Kulluk, and the Aiviq managed to secure another connection.

However, by later on Dec. 31, the Kulluk was reported as “now adrift … four miles from the nearest point of land,” and by 9 p.m. Alaska time, the Kulluk had run aground, with the Alert having been given orders to detach itself roughly 45 minutes prior to protect the safety of the nine crewmembers aboard the Alert.

By this time, some 250 people had joined the response efforts. That grew to some 600 people by New Year’s Day, which also included flyovers by a Coast Guard C-130 and a Jayhawk helicopter. Both reported no visible sheen and to this point there have been no reported fuel spills.

"My primary concern is ensuring the unified command has the personnel, assets and equipment they need to safely salvage the Kulluk," said Rear Adm. Thomas Ostebo, commander, Coast Guard 17th District and commander of Coast Guard forces in Alaska, in a statement. "I have over flown the Kulluk twice and am fully aware of the remote location, weather challenges and the extensive plans that will have to be developed to ensure this incident is managed in safe and effective manner … This is a very large and complex response and it is important that the American public and our elected officials understand the dangerous and difficult challenges being faced by the response crews. We are continuing our collaborated response with other shareholders in the unified command until the grounded Kulluk no longer poses a threat to the pristine Alaska maritime environment. Throughout the response, our number one priority has been and will continue to be ensuring the safety of the crews involved in response operations."