Kulluk hearing continues with testimony from rig manager

The hearing about the Noble drilling rig that ran aground in December while crossing the Gulf of Alaska continued today with testimony from the rig’s manager and a tug captain involved in trying to turn the situation around before the rig grounded.

Noble drilling’s Todd Case, an offshore installation who has been with the company for more than two decades, had moved the same rig, the Kulluk, in Alaska prior to the December grounding. 

After Case and his crew were evacuated, Capt. Rodney Layton tried to maneuver the tug Crowley-operated tug Alert to move the Kulluk.

That effort was ultimately unsuccessful and the drillship ran aground in the Gulf of Alaska Dec. 31.

It was on its way from Dutch Harbor to Seattle, where work was going to be done to prepare it for the 2013 drilling season. The rig spent the summer of 2012 doing exploratory work in the Beaufort Sea for Shell.

The attempt to move the unpowered rig to Seattle originally began with one tug, the Aiviq, towing it, but eventually required backup from two others and assistance from the United States Coast Guard.

Case and the crew onboard the Kulluk were evacuated Dec. 29 after several issues cropped up in the move, including bad weather and a failed part on the line connecting the Kulluk to the tug towing it.

Now, the U.S. Coast Guard is holding a marine casualty investigation regarding the incident, and asking many of the individuals involved to talk about what happened last December. Testimony began Monday, and is scheduled to continue through next week.

Case talked about what happened from the time he arrived in Dutch Harbor Dec. 19, two days before the rig left for Seattle, until the crew was evacuated.

In retrospect, Case said he would never try to move the Kulluk in winter without a second tug in the area as backup.

When questioned, Case described the conical drilling unit as a “unique” thing to move.

Case described the weather while the rig was being towed as the worst he’s ever encountered. Last summer, he managed the Kulluk’s move from Dutch Harbor toward its arctic drill site. That effort used the Aiviq for part of the time, and two Crowley tugs for another portion. The drillship encountered nasty weather then, but not as bad as the rig saw in December.

Case said that despite the weather, he thought the rig would have made it to Seattle had it not been for the shackle that failed, causing the ship to disconnect from the Aiviq.

The shackle was a u-shaped piece that connected the tow line to the rest of the tow setup.

After the Aiviq and the Kulluk were disconnected, the crews managed to reconnect them using emergency tow lines, and other tugs tried to help as well, but nothing worked.

Case said that after the primary line failed, the crews never had full control of the Kulluk’s movement. The drillship kept slipping.

Throughout the towing challenges, the rig faced 30-foot seas and 50-knot winds. That was a change from the four day clear weather window when the rig left Dutch on Dec. 21, and from barbequing on the deck Dec. 25.

During the move, Case said the rig was pitching 8 to 10 degrees, sometimes up to 15 degrees.

The Coast Guard introduced evidence showing that the Kulluk’s operating manual called for the rig to slow down if it had a pitch of more than six degrees.

The pitch is how much the ship tipped.

Case said he didn’t recall the exact number to slow down, but thought the ship had tried to do so. He wasn’t sure, he said, if the tow master was aware of the number or had explicitly asked the Aiviq to slow down, he said.

Between the weather, and the lack of control over the Kulluk’s movement, the situation grew dangerous and the parties involved decided to evacuate the rig.

That took two tries, in part because the a helicopter could not safely land.

Case said that after the first failed evacuation, he felt like his life was in danger for the first time while moving a rig.

Everyone was scared, he said, but there was nothing they could do but wait for another rescue. “We didn’t start crying,” he said.

They wanted a helicopter rescue, rather than use the lifeboat capsules on the rig, because lowering those into the rough seas could have resulted in the loss of life, he said. It was a very last option.

“As heavy as the seas were - the boat could have been launched. It could have got sucked up under the concave of the rig,” Case said. “The rig could have smashed down on it.”

Eventually the crew was safely rescued, but the Kulluk remained just out of control for nearly two days.

Layton’s testimony centered on that portion of the incident.

The Alert tried to assist with getting the tug into a safe haven.

Ultimately, Layton said, Shell’s marine operator in charge of the whole project, made the call to disconnect the tug from the rig.

That was somewhat surprising to Layton, although he couldn’t say whether or not he would have made the same call. Later that day, Dec. 31, the rig grounded.

The seven-member crew of the alert was safely waiting out the storm when that happened, Layton said.

The hearing is scheduled to continue Thursday in the Assembly Chambers at Anchorage’s Loussac Library.


Molly Dischner can be reached at [email protected].

05/22/2013 - 6:16pm