On Dec. 22, 2012, the day after the Aiviq left Dutch Harbor for Seattle with the Kulluk in tow, the captain sent an email to the tow master riding behind on the drilling rig. “To be blunt, I believe that this length of tow, at this time of year, in this location, with our current routing guarantees an ass kicking.”

He was right. They got that ass kicking big time as towing gear failed five times and all main engines on the Aiviq conked out due to water-contaminated fuel. Eventually, even with the help of the Coast Guard and several other rescue vessels, the Kulluk was intentionally released and ran aground on an island beach south of Kodiak on New Year’s Eve.

Now Edison Chouest Offshore, the owner of the Aiviq, and Shell, owner of the Kulluk, are getting their asses kicked again, this time by the Coast Guard. The recently released report on the Coast Guard’s investigation reveals shoddy planning and performance by both parties throughout the unfortunate episode. The Coast Guard is even continuing to investigate “acts of misconduct and negligence” on the part of the Aiviq’s chief engineer, master and third mate.

Essentially, the 152-page report says that Shell Oil and Edison Chouest didn’t know what they were getting into and weren’t prepared for the worst.

Only one vessel to tow the ungainly Kulluk across the Gulf of Alaska in December and January? Not even a tug escort?  

And that single towing vessel, the purpose-built Aiviq, had known problems with fuel-tank vents susceptible to seawater intake, but it headed out into the stormy seas of Alaska anyway?

The report also makes clear that Shell arranged to get the Kulluk out of Alaska before the end of the year in order to avoid paying taxes that would be levied if the rig were still in the state in 2013.

In his review of the report, Rear Adm. T.P. Ostebo said a “complex series of events contributed to the error chain that resulted in the grounding.” That's just a polite way of saying the situation was totally screwed up.

The 10-day trip from Dutch Harbor that ended with the rig’s grounding was certainly a nightmare for everyone involved. From broken towing gear to dead engines, all endured during some really heavy weather, it must have been horrific. And many aboard the Aiviq and the other vessels and aircraft that joined the fray certainly performed ably and responsibly, although to no avail.

The good news is that no one was injured or killed and environmental damage was nil.

The bad news is that Shell and ECO didn’t know what they were doing.

With a degree in English literature from the University of Washington (Go Dawgs!), journalism experience at the once-upon-a-time Seattle P-I, and at-sea experience as a commercial fisherman in Washington and Alaska, Bruce Buls has forged a career in commercial marine trade journalism, including stints at Alaska Fishermen’s Journal and National Fisherman, WorkBoat’s sister publications. Bruce spent 16 years as WorkBoat's technical editor before retiring in May 2015. He lives on Puget Sound’s Whidbey Island, about 20 miles north of Seattle (go 'Hawks!).