Man In Charge Of Kulluk During Tow Testifies At Hearing

The conical drilling unit Kulluk sits aground on the southeast shore of Sitkalidak Island about 40 miles southwest of Kodiak City, Photo courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard.
The conical drilling unit Kulluk sits aground on the southeast shore of Sitkalidak Island about 40 miles southwest of Kodiak City, Photo courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard.

Wednesday, the man who was in charge of the Shell drilling rig Kulluk when it went aground New Year’s Eve testified at a Coast Guard hearing that he had never done a winter tow in Alaska, but he thought they were prepared for the weather ahead when they left Dutch Harbor to cross the Gulf of Alaska.

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Todd Case had worked for Noble Drilling for more than 20 years and can’t even remember how many tows he’s been involved with. He was aboard the Kulluk when it was towed through the Chukchi Sea in 2012, and he remembers weather bad enough to force the tugs pulling it to turn into the wind. He told investigators that the tug Aivik performed well during that trip. He arrived in Dutch Harbor a couple of days before the Kulluk was due to leave and he said he was confident they had a good tow plan and he and his tow master John Becker were looking at a window of good weather ahead.

“We talked about it in meetings. We didn’t none of us expect to have uh seas as rough as we had,” Case said.

And they did get rough. The Kulluk’s operations manual says if the waves start tipping the vessel more than six degrees, the tow should be slowed down. The vessel’s log book says on the 27th of December that pitching happened for hours, and Case said he couldn’t remember if Becker discussed slowing down with the master of the tug Aivik or not. At about mid-day, Case was on his way to a lunch break when he got word that the tow had broken. He told Coast Guard investigator Josh Mc Taggart what happened next.

Case: Out on deck to look at it. Everybody was informed at that time. Somewhere around 11:30 I believe the tow line…parted, and some time right after 14:00 we got it back on the emergency line.

McTaggart: To your recollection, what actually failed on that tow gear?

Case: Shackle

A shackle is a heavy metal loop that a chain or cable is fixed to. This shackle was never recovered. It wasn’t on the Kulluk’s gear and it wasn’t at the end of the line when the Aivik pulled it in.

This was the beginning of a series of problems that would see tows re-established several times, the failure of the Aivik’s engines, the arrival of more vessels, and a plan to try to get the rig to safe harbor somewhere around Kodiak Island.

Ultimately an emergency line to the tug Guardsman parted, the storm was intensifying, and the drift toward the shallows was accelerating. It was worse than any situation Todd Case had ever seen, and Barry Strauch of the National Transportation Safety Board asked the inevitable question.

Strauch: At any point in this did you believe that your life was in danger?

Case: Again, be hard to say but if you’re driftin’ toward the bank at three knots and its three hours away, yeah, you would wonder.

Strauch: Well, what did you do, you and the other crew members do when you realized that your life may be in jeopardy?

Case: Well, wasn’t much we could do but wait on other resources to get there. We didn’t start cryin’.

But they might have wanted to start crying, when the Coast Guard helicopter pilot told them the deck was pitching so badly that it was too dangerous to attempt to lower a basket to start evacuating the 18 crew members in the dark. They had to wait for first light. Then on Dec. 29 a couple of helicopter trips removed the crew and efforts went on to try to divert the drifting rig. It grounded on the 31st.

During this lengthy probe, each witness has brought another part of the story to light. Case was asked to speculate several times and declined. But when Strach asked him what hindsight had taught him he did not hesitate:

“Knowing what we know now, we know we should have had multiple tugs,” Case said.

He has never had to be rescued before, he said. When asked if he felt any pressure to leave Dutch Harbor quickly, Case said no, he did not.