Salvors ready Shell drill ship for tow attempt

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Royal Dutch Shell PLC will try to move its grounded drill ship out of the worst of the North Pacific’s fury with a towing attempt when conditions allow.

Shell incident commander Sean Churchfield said at a press conference Saturday that naval architects have pronounced the Kulluk fit to be towed. The attempt will depend on weather, tides and readiness, he said.

“I can’t offer you firm times. Right now, the preparation for the tow depends on the weather and operational constraints,” Mr. Churchfield said. “We will be looking to move the vessel as soon as we are ready and able.”

If the drill ship can be pulled from the rocks off Sitkalidak Island, it will be towed 30 miles to shelter in Kodiak Island’s Kiliuda Bay, a cove about 43 miles southeast of the city of Kodiak.

The Kulluk is a circular barge 266 feet in diameter with a funnel-shaped, reinforced steel hull that allows it to operate in ice. One of two Shell ships that drilled last year in the Arctic Ocean, it has a 160-foot derrick rising from its center and no propulsion system of its own.

The tow attempt will be made by the same vessel that lost the Kulluk last month while attempting to move it to Seattle. A line between the 360-foot anchor handler, the Aiviq, and the Kulluk broke Dec. 27. Four re-attached lines between the Aiviq or other vessels also broke in stormy weather.

The attempt to rein in the drill ship was complicated by engine failure experienced by the Aiviq’s four engines. A preliminary investigation pointed to bad fuel, but that is not conclusive, Mr. Churchfield said. The Edison Chouest Offshore crew has treated fuel and changed filters.

“Thus far, we have not seen a repeat of those problems,” he said.

Fuel tanks remain intact on the Kulluk, and there are no plans to remove an estimated 150,000 gallons of diesel from the Kulluk, which would present a different set of risks, Mr. Churchfield said. Other cargo also will remain.

Coast Guard Capt. Paul Mehler, the federal on-scene coordinator, said no divers have been in the water, but soundings from small Coast Guard boats and discussions with local fishermen indicate the vessel rests on a rocky bottom.

Not every piece of equipment was in place Saturday afternoon, he said.

“The two that I know, we have a large generator and we have a piece of a tow connection. It’s actually an expandable piece that would do the gig. That’s the key piece we’re missing right now,” Capt. Mehler said.

More than 600 people were working on the recovery.

Dan Magone, who has worked on other major groundings in Alaska, a day earlier expressed skepticism that the vessel could simply be towed.

“I’d really be shocked if this thing is so lightly aground and so lightly damaged that they can just go pull this thing off right away,” said Mr.  Magone, president of Magone Marine, in a telephone interview from his headquarters in Dutch Harbor.

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