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Updated Monday, December 31, 2012 at 12:46 AM

Shell drill ship's tow lines snap in fierce Alaska storm

By RACHEL D'ORO
The Associated Press

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — A Shell drill ship stranded by a fierce storm in the Gulf of Alaska was drifting again Sunday after it broke from lines attaching it to two towing vessels.

The lines attaching the drill ship Kulluk to the vessels Aiviq and Nanuq broke Sunday afternoon, Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said.

The vessels are following the drifting rig, which has no propulsion system of its own, while responders look at ways to reconnect the lines to the Kulluk.

The crews of the Aiviq and the Nanuq were stationed Sunday with the Royal Dutch Shell PLC drill rig Kulluk about 20 miles from Alaska's Kodiak Island, and were joined later in the day by the tugboat Alert in very rough seas, the Coast Guard said. The Coast Guard cutter Alex Haley was en route for a second time and expected to arrive late Sunday.

Coast Guard Capt. Paul Mehler III said crews spent Saturday night dealing with the storm that brought winds between 55 and 70 mph.

"It was close to a hurricane," Mehler told reporters during a news briefing held shortly before the towing lines broke.

The Alert had not yet been connected to the Kulluk when the lines to the other vessels broke, Smith said.

Petty Officer 1st Class David Mosley said winds Sunday ranged between 35 mph and 50 mph. Seas were as high as 22 feet.

The ultimate goal is to tow the Kulluk to a safe harbor.

The Aiviq was using only two of its four engines at a time, with two on standby. The Aiviq's engines failed Friday, and one of them was restarted the same day. The others were back to running Saturday after parts were delivered by Coast Guard helicopter.

All 18 crew members on the Kulluk were safely evacuated from the drill ship.

Before it was attached to the tow lines, the ship had been drifting toward the Trinity Islands.

Helicopter crews tried unsuccessfully Friday night and early Saturday to evacuate the crew, but succeeded in their third attempt, after winds had died down from a high of 60 mph.

Two workers on board the Aiviq sustained minor injuries, said Sean Churchfield, Shell's Alaska operations manager. He didn't have details, but said he understood the crew members were back at work.

Despite the severe conditions, no oil has been discharged and none of the vessels has been damaged, said Steven Russell with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.

The drill ship was being towed from Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands to Seattle when problems arose Thursday. Responders said the rig lost its towline with the Aiviq, so the cutter Haley was sent there as a safety precaution. The Aiviq reported multiple engine failures after the cutter reached the stricken vessels early Friday.

Cutter crews tried to fix a tow line to the Aiviq to keep it from drifting, but that attempt failed when part of the towline got wrapped around one of the Haley's propellers. The cutter left after the Coast Guard sent a C-130 aircraft.

The Kulluk is one of two drill ships Shell operated this year in the short Arctic Ocean open water season. A round ship with a 160-foot derrick, it was designed for extended drilling in Arctic waters, and has an ice-reinforced, funnel-shape hull 266 feet in diameter. The conical shape is designed to deflect moving ice downward and break it into small pieces.

The Aiviq is owned and operated by Edison Chouest Offshore of Galliano, La.

Churchfield said an investigation will be conducted into the cause of problems.

He lauded the involved responders dealing with extremely challenging conditions. He also praised the performance of Shell and its contractors.

"Flawless operations is always the goal. But being a responsible operator also means putting contingency plans in place," Churchfield said. "Shell has done that throughout."


PETTY OFFICER 1ST CLASS SARA FRA / AP
The vessels Aiviq and Nanuq towed the mobile drilling unit Kulluk on Saturday. The lines attaching the drill ship to the vessels broke Sunday afternoon, and the crews were joined later in the day by the tugboat Alert in very rough seas.




PETTY OFFICER 3RD CLASS JONATHAN / AP
Crew members of the Kulluk arrive at Air Station Kodiak after being airlifted by a Coast Guard helicopter crew from a vessel 80 miles southwest of Kodiak, Alaska, on Saturday.




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