Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Golden Seas Rescue

By Petty Officer 3rd Class Walter Shinn

A 738-foot freighter with 20 crewmembers aboard was battered by fierce Arctic winds and 30-foot seas after a mechanical failure left it with limited engine power in the midst of an ice-cold storm 70 miles north of Adak, Alaska.

The cargo vessel Golden Seas was carrying more than 132,277 pounds of rape seed used to make canola oil, 450,000 gallons of fuel oil and 11,700 gallons of diesel fuel, and as the vessel drifted toward land, the only help available was more than 400 miles away.

During the Golden Seas’ voyage to the United Arab Emirates the ship experienced a turbo-charger failure on December 3, 2010. The power failure disabled the vessel’s propulsion, setting the ship adrift in heavy seas heading toward the Aleutian Island of Atka.

As soon as the Coast Guard received the report of the vessel’s problem the life-saving service immediately began mobilizing personnel in preparation for a major incident.

Six years ago nearly to the exact day a similar incident occurred.

The Malaysian freighter, Selendang Ayu, went aground and broke in half at Skan Bay off Unalaska Island in the Aleutian chain on December 8, 2004. The accident sent 336,000 gallons of oil and 66,000 tons of soybeans into the water and onto the shores of the island. Six crewmembers died during a rescue attempt.

The similarity of the Golden Seas to the Selendang Ayu was in the minds of personnel from federal and state agencies who formed a unified command to prevent a bad situation turning into a major incident.

The unified command was faced with a difficult situation. There was a gap with hundreds of miles of empty ocean and no rescue responders close by to come to the aid of the stricken vessel.

However, there was a 251-foot, 18,300 horsepower towing vessel moored in Dutch Harbor. The crew of Tor Viking II was just a day away from being able to rescue the Golden Seas. The Tor Viking II vessel and crew was contracted by O’Brien’s Response Management, who was part of the unified command, to respond from Dutch Harbor to tow the Golden Seas to safety.

In addition to the Tor Viking II, two Air Station Kodiak Coast Guard MH-60 Jayhawk helicopters and crews were deployed to Adak to provide rescue capabilities if needed. A Coast Guard HC-130 Hercules aircrew was also deployed to communicate with the vessel and to collect set, drift, current and temperature information from a data marker buoy dropped by the aircrew.

Battling through nearly overwhelming conditions in the Bering Sea, the Coast Guard Cutter Alex Haley was also diverted to respond to the Golden Seas but was three days away. The Cutter Spar was also deployed from Kodiak to help with any needed environmental response.

Waves ranged from 10 to 30-feet, typical of the harsh weather conditions in the Bering Sea, but were no match for the Tor Viking II, which was able to reach the Golden Seas after a day’s travel of plowing through the weather.

By the time the towing vessel crew arrived, the weather became calmer for a long enough period for the Golden Seas to utilize limited engine capability and maneuver northeast away from land giving rescue vessels the time needed to get to the stricken vessel. The Tor Viking II reached the bulk carrier at 5:30 p.m. and was able to successfully attach towlines and began the tow at 8:30 p.m. Dec. 4. 2010.

A rescue operation of this size demonstrates the immense area of responsibility for the Coast Guard. The 17th Coast Guard District operates in Alaska covering a vast amount of ocean encompassing 3,853,500 square miles and more than 33,000 miles of coastline, an area larger than the land mass of the continental US.

Large bulk carriers navigate through this area because it is part of the great circle route, decreasing vessel travel time and fuel usage while crossing the Pacific Ocean.

“This case demonstrates the extreme distances involved in conducting operations in Alaska and the challenges ahead for the Arctic regions,” said Capt. Jason Fosdick, federal on-scene coordinator. “Multiple Coast Guard crews responded requiring a coordinated airplane, helicopter and ocean-going cutter response. Fortunately the Alex Haley was able to respond, demonstrating the need for Coast Guard cutters that can handle heavy seas in the Bering.”

Crews from the Coast Guard and Tor Viking II braved stormy seas to aid the stricken ship. The Tor Viking II towed the vessel near the port of Dutch Harbor for the crew to make repairs. Six days later the motor vessel departed Dutch Harbor en route to the United Arab Emirates after successful engine tests were conducted.

“This is a very different outcome from what occurred six years ago when the Selendang Ayu grounded on Unalaska Island,” said Gary Folley, state on-scene coordinator. “The State of Alaska is grateful for the efforts of all involved in the response, in particular the crew of the Tor Viking II, who demonstrated tremendous skill in taking the Golden Seas in tow at night in heavy seas.”

The Tor Viking II and the Alex Haley traveled more than 400 miles one way while Coast Guard helicopters traveled more than 600 miles to be in position to rescue the 20 vessel crewmembers if needed.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Walter Shinn has been stationed in Juneau, Alaska, for three years. Shinn has been deployed to the Arctic as well as support for the Deep Water Horizon and internationally coordinated Haiti Earthquake responses.