Unalaska Installs Emergency Mooring Buoy

When cargo ships run into trouble along the Great Circle shipping route, they often end up in Unalaska. There are plenty of support services in town, but there’s only so much dock space. And with Unalaska’s rough weather, simply dropping anchor isn’t secure enough.

That’s why Unalaska has deployed a new emergency mooring buoy in Broad Bay. Mayor Shirley Marquardt says the system is valued at $10.2 million. But it was almost entirely funded with grants and donations of hardware and professional services.

“You know, it took two years to get every one of these pieces together,” Marquardt says. “[We were] trying to do it with as little city money as possible, because the whole idea of this buoy is to protect us from the disabled and distressed vessels that get brought to us. We become their caretaker, and it kind of puts us at risk.”

That was the case with the Golden Seas, a cargo ship that went adrift near Adak in 2010. It was carrying 500,000 pounds of oil and fuel and posed a major spill risk to Unalaska because it was too large to tie up in town. So the 700-foot vessel sat anchored in Broad Bay while its engine was fixed, with a tugboat on hand to monitor it.

Even if it had been able to dock in Unalaska, it might have been a problem. City manager Chris Hladick says the unexpected arrival of a large shipping vessel can disrupt the port’s tight schedule.

“Maybe it’s a critical time of year. They take up dock space, and then you have a huge impact to our economic engine which is the port,” Hladick says.

Hladick says the city wanted a dedicated space for ships to go during emergencies.

“We came up with the idea of a mooring buoy away from the docks that you could put the ship on,” says Hladick. “Then they could order their parts, make their repairs, and then get under way and get out of here.”

Marquardt and Hladick say the biggest donor to the mooring system was Shell Oil. Shell provided three surplus anchors to hold the buoy in place, and had their contractors ship them from Louisiana for free.

Shell’s icebreaker class anchor handler, the Aiviq, stopped in Unalaska on its way out of the Beaufort Sea after the Arctic drilling season ended. The crew spent two days helping the city install the system at no cost. And in the future, the Coast Guard will maintain it for free using their buoy tenders.

The mooring buoy compliments Unalaska’s emergency towing kit, which was developed about five years ago with the Aleutian Islands Risk Assessment team.

John Brown, a coordinator from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, says the towing system can be used to bring broken-down vessels to the new buoy. He says the risk assessment group will test it out when they gather in Unalaska for their annual towing drill next fall.

CORRECTION [Dec. 10 3:30 pm]: The Coast Guard will not perform free, regular maintenance on the emergency mooring buoy, as previously reported. Unalaska ports director Peggy McLaughlin says maintenance will be performed by local contractors and paid for using moorage fees. 

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