Inside Look at the USCG Response to the Golden Sea

Thursday, January 06, 2011
The Kodiak-based Coast Guard Cutter Alex Haley escorts the 738-foot cargo vessel Golden Seas while under tow to Dutch Harbor by the tug Tor Viking II Dec. 5, 2010, 50 miles west southwest of Dutch Harbor in the Pacific Ocean. The Golden Seas requested a tow after suffering a turbo-charge failure Dec. 3 limiting power and steerage. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Sara Francis.

By Petty Officer 3rd Class Walter Shinn

Fierce Arctic winds and towering 30-foot seas assaulted a 738-foot freighter with 20 crewmembers aboard finding themselves helplessly adrift with limited engine power in the midst of an ice-cold storm 70 miles north of Adak.

Trouble loomed on the horizon as they were drifting toward land carrying more than 132,277 pounds of rape seed used to make canola oil, 450,000 gallons of fuel oil and 11,700 gallons of diesel fuel with the only help more than 400 miles away.

In the midst of the Golden Seas’ voyage to the United Arab Emirates the crew experienced a turbo-charger failure Dec. 3 2010.  The power failure disabled the vessel's propulsion setting the ship adrift in heavy seas heading toward the Aleutian Island of Atka.

As soon as the Coast Guard received the report of the vessel’s problem the life-saving service immediately began mobilizing personnel in preparation for a major incident.

Six years ago nearly to the exact day a similar incident occurred.

The Malaysian freighter, Selendang Ayu, went aground and broke in half at Skan Bay off Unalaska Island in the Aleutian chain December 8, 2004. The accident sent 336,000 gallons of oil and 66,000 tons of soybeans into the water and onto the shores of the island. Six crew members died during a rescue attempt.

The similarity of the Golden Seas situation to that of the Selendang Ayu was in the minds of personnel from federal and state agencies who responded by forming a unified command.

That unified command was faced with a difficult situation. There was a gap with hundreds of miles of empty ocean and no rescue responders close by to come to the aid of the Golden Seas.

However, there was a 251-foot, 18,300 horsepower towing vessel moored in Dutch Harbor. The crew of Tor Viking II was just a day away from being able to rescue the Golden Seas. The Tor Viking II vessel and crew was contracted by O’Brien’s, who was part of the unified command, to respond from Dutch Harbor to tow the Golden Seas to safety.

In addition to the Tor Viking II, two Air Station Kodiak Coast Guard MH-60 Jayhawk helicopters and crews were deployed to Adak to provide rescue capabilities if needed. A Coast Guard HC-130 Hercules aircrew was also deployed to communicate with the vessel and to collect set, drift, current and temperature information from a data marker buoy dropped by the aircrew.

Battling through nearly overwhelming conditions in the Bering Sea, the Coast Guard Cutter Alex Haley was also diverted to respond to the Golden Seas but was three days away. The Cutter SPAR was also deployed from Kodiak to help with any needed environment response.

Waves ranged from 10 to 30-foot, living up to the reputation of harsh weather conditions in the Bering Sea.  Rescue aircraft and vessels fought through the weather conditions to swiftly aid the troubled Golden Seas.

Ferocious seas were no match for the Tor Viking II vessel and crew as they were able to reach the Golden Seas after a day’s travel of plowing through the weather.

By the time the towing vessel crew arrived, the weather calmed long enough for the Golden Seas to utilize limited engine capability and maneuver northeast away from land, giving rescue vessels the time needed to get to the stricken vessel. The Tor Viking II reached the bulk carrier at 5:30 p.m. and was able to successfully attach towlines and began the tow at 8:30 p.m. Dec. 4. 2010.

The Coast Guard has an immense area of responsibility. The 17th Coast Guard District operates in Alaska covering a vast amount of ocean encompassing 3,853,500 square miles and more than 33,000 miles of coastline, an area larger than the land mass of the continental U.S.

Large bulk carriers navigate through this area because it is part of the great circle route, decreasing vessel traveling time and fuel while crossing the Pacific Ocean.

“This case demonstrates the extreme distances involved in conducting operations in Alaska and the challenges ahead for the Arctic regions," said Capt. Jason Fosdick, federal on-scene coordinator. "Multiple Coast Guard crews responded requiring a coordinated airplane, helicopter and ocean-going cutter response.  Fortunately the Alex Haley was able to respond, demonstrating the need for Coast Guard cutters that can handle heavy seas in the Bering."

Crews from the Coast Guard and Tor Viking II valiantly braved through stormy seas to aid the stricken motor vessel Golden Seas. The Tor Viking II towed the vessel near the port of Dutch Harbor for the crew to make repairs. Six days later the motor vessel departed Dutch Harbor en route to the United Arab Emirates.

“This is a very different outcome than what occurred six years ago when the Selendang Ayu grounded on Unalaska Island,” said Gary Folley, state on-scene coordinator.  “The State of Alaska is grateful for the efforts of all involved in the response, in particular the crew of the Tor Viking II who demonstrated tremendous skill in taking the Golden Seas in tow at night in heavy seas.”

The Tor Viking II and the Alex Haley traveled more than 400 miles one way while Coast Guard helicopters traveled more than 600 miles to be in position to rescue the 20 vessel crewmembers if needed.

A major crisis was averted and lives were saved when the Coast Guard sprang into action and did what the service does best — maintain safety at sea.

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