This week’s New York Times Magazine cover story is a fascinating and detailed account of the grounding of the Shell oil rig Kulluk in the Gulf of Alaska two years ago. With the benefit of two years hindsight and a comprehensive Coast Guard report published last April, writer McKenzie Funk pieces together a riveting tale.
WorkBoat readers will have special appreciation for the story which involves the tricky tow of the perfectly round drill rig Kulluk, refurbished at Vigor Shipyard in Seattle for Shell. The rig was headed for a new and unforgiving frontier in oil exploration, the Arctic. Shell planned to send two exploratory rigs to the far north to retrieve core samples and confirm oil reserves. The Kulluk headed north under tow by the Edison Chouest-built Aiviq, touted as the largest anchor-handling, icebreaking vessel on earth. Aiviq was purpose-built at a cost of $200 million. The vessel is powered by four Caterpillar C280-12 engines each capable of 5500 hp. All of these engines failed during the fateful voyage. The other rig, a self-propelled drill rig had its share of issues, but made the round trip safely. The Kulluk and Aiviq made the trip north to Dutch Harbor then proceeded 1000 miles north and managed to partially drill two of five test wells before having to retreat as the sea ice returned. It was on the voyage from Dutch Harbor back to Seattle that all hell broke loose. They left Dutch Harbor just after Christmas so that Shell would not be liable for Alaska state tax if the rig remained into the new year. The winter weather became more and more dangerous. Huge waves turned the derrick rig into a metronome and washed seawater into the Aiviq’s mighty engines. Kulluk foundered after the tow line snapped (this occurred five times). Coast Guard helicopters struggled to rescue the 18-man crew from the Kulluk.
The most interesting part of the story is when the Crowley tug Alert comes on the scene. This 140′ escort brought 10,000 hp and a brave crew to the disaster. The Crowley crew was later recognized by Alaska state representatives for their courageous attempt to save the rig. Funk takes us right on deck with these guys in 50 knot winds and 30-foot seas as they rig a tow line after the engines on the Aiviq all failed.