VANCOUVER, B.C. — U.S. Coast Guard helicopters were evacuating the crew of a troubled oil drilling barge off the coast of southern Alaska Saturday afternoon after engine troubles on its tow vessel had left the barge drifting toward landfall south of Kodiak Island.
The move followed a tense night, when high seas and heavy winds prevented any evacuation and left Coast Guard officials worried that the Kulluk rig, which was returning from a season of offshore drilling in the Arctic, could run aground if the situation were not brought under control.
“The weather on scene is testing the limits of our Coast Guard crews. The professionalism of our air crews and cutter men and women have prevented the situation from deteriorating further,” said Rear Adm. Thomas Ostebo, commander of the 17th Coast Guard District in Juneau, Alaska.
On Saturday afternoon, engineers were able to restart the last of the four engines on the Aiviq towing vessel and also attach a line from a second ship brought in by Shell Alaska, the Nanuq.
The armada of three was steaming slowly southward, away from land, and Shell engineers were attempting to decide the best nearby harbor in which to shelter and reassess.
“We'll continue south for now to create more distance from land,” Shell Alaska spokesman Curtis Smith told the Los Angeles Times.
Coast Guard helicopters and C-130 aircraft were on hand to aid the drilling rig after the Aiviq lost engine power a day earlier in severe weather.
The Kulluk, which has no propulsion system, was heading south for Seattle when it first had trouble with its tow line in the high winds and heavy seas and then was left without power when the Aiviq encountered what officials said was likely a fuel contamination problem.
Coast Guard officials said they had hoped to evacuate nonessential crew members as a precaution Friday night, but the weather prevented it.
“Due to the efforts of the crew, they were able to slow the drift, and we were able to get the parts to the crew that they needed to repair the Aiviq,” Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class David Mosley said in an interview.
By midafternoon, Coast Guard teams were able to begin evacuating all 18 crew members from the Kulluk, while the Aiviq's crew was expected to remain on board that ship.