By Casey Grove, Anchorage Daily News, Alaska
A powerful tugboat had a partially disabled cargo ship under tow late Saturday in a remote area of the Aleutians and the two were making their way to Dutch Harbor, the Coast Guard said.
The Tor Viking II was towing the 738-foot Golden Seas cargo ship, which suffered engine problems while carrying a load of fuel and canola seed in the Bering Sea. The tug made it to the distressed cargo vessel Saturday evening, attached a line and the two were on a northeastern course later in the night about 40 miles north of Atka Island.
The sluggish cargo ship began experiencing problems Friday, but the situation improved overnight as strong wind and rough seas subsided somewhat, and its crew was able to increase the ship’s distance from the nearest land, the Coast Guard said earlier Saturday.
The Golden Seas had been drifting toward Atka, which is situated about 1,300 miles southwest of Anchorage in the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, where it was feared the vessel could go around.
The Golden Seas motored at about 3 to 4 mph away from land Friday night, according to a unified command comprised of representatives with the U.S. Coast Guard, the state Department of Environmental Conservations, and an incident commander from O’Brien’s Response Management, hired by the ship’s owner.
Strong winds up to 50 knots continued Saturday, with 20- to 25-foot seas, according to the Coast Guard.
“As always, the Alaska weather will dictate how a lot of things will happen,” Mosley said.
Plans called for the 18,000-horsepower tug to tow the ailing cargo ship to port at Dutch Harbor and arrive there by Sunday night or Monday morning. A Coast Guard cutter, the Alex Haley, is also en route and expected to arrive on the scene Sunday morning.
Responders said the Golden Seas, which is managed by Allseas Marine, based in Athens, Greece, lost its turbocharger. That left it without enough power to overcome 29-foot seas and winds blowing at 45 mph.
The Tor Viking II has an emergency towing system onboard, according to the unified command. The tug’s crew used a line gun to shoot a messenger line to the Golden Seas. The crew pulled in the main tow line, a heavy, synthetic line, used to connect both vessels.
The Golden Seas is expected to undergo repairs in Dutch Harbor.
“There’s a lot of challenges,” said Coast Guard Capt. Jason Fosdick said. “You’re talking two really big pieces of metal in heavy seas and winds, and it’s a difficult proposition.
“However, the Tor Viking is a purpose-built vessel for this type of operation,” Fosdick said. “I believe that professional mariners always get it done when it needs to be done. So it is a difficult situation, but I think that we have the right tools to get the job done.”
The Tor Viking II, owned by Oslo, Norway-based Viking Supply Ships, was under contract to Shell Oil to work on Shell’s Arctic oil and gas drilling operations and just happened to be available. The typical tugboat in the Aleutians has less than one-sixth the horsepower of the Tor Viking.
“It’s quite a bit of difference, so it really was quite fortunate to have this particular tug with its expertise and capabilities available,” said Gary Folley, a state environmental conservation coordinator.
According to the DEC, the Liberia-flagged Golden Seas is carrying more than 457,500 gallons of fuel oil, nearly 12,000 gallons of diesel fuel and 10,000 gallons of lube oil. None of it has spilled, officials said.
The ship is en route from Vancouver, British Columbia, to the United Arab Emirates, the Coast Guard said.
There were no reports of injuries among the 20 crew members on board. Two Coast Guard H-60 helicopters were on standby in Dutch Harbor in case the crewmen, about two hours away by air, need rescue, Fosdick said.
Communication with the both ships’ crews has been excellent, Fosdick said. Coordinators have been talking with the cargo ship’s crew members every 30 minutes since about 4 a.m. Friday.
Keeping them safe is the first priority, Michels said. Since there is no immediate threat to their safety, the next concern is protecting the environment, he said.
“Our concerns are quite a bit less than they were yesterday,” Folley said Saturday.
The Golden Seas incident is the latest example of the challenges involved in responding to incidents in the remote region, said Whit Sheard, an Oceana attorney who sits on the Aleutian Island Risk Assessment Advisory Panel, established with criminal settlement funds from the grounding of the Selendang Ayu six years ago.
The ship, the same size of the Golden Seas, ran aground Dec. 8, 2004, and broke apart on the north side of Unalaska Island, also in the Aleutians. About 66,000 tons of soybeans were lost.
During rescue operations, a rogue wave crashed into a Coast Guard helicopter lifting Selendang Ayu crew members from the freighter, and the aircraft crashed. Six of the 10 freighter crew members were killed.
That disaster has not caused the Coast Guard to hesitate when conducting rescues attempts, Fosdick said.
“There’s caution in where you approach the vessel, if it’s foundered on the rocks and you’re in a situation where you have seas broaching the side of the vessel. Yes, that’s a big concern for the helicopter pilots,” he said. “In this case preparations yesterday, we were prepared to get the crew off well before they approached a grounding, just to make sure the helicopter was in a situation where it’d be safe.”
“But I don’t think the Coast Guard is ever afraid to go in and rescue people,” Fosdick said. “That’s our job.”
The Coast Guard, DEC and other agencies are looking at the feasibility of having rescue tugboats stationed closer to international shipping lanes, according to members of the Golden Seas unified command. Various factors — including funding sources, geography, and seasonal variations — are impacting that discussion, Fosdick said.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
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