Unalaska’s emergency towing system put to the test

Response crews aboard the tug Gyrfalcon prepare to use an emergency towing system to take the cargo vessel Suah into tow during a response exercise at the mouth of Dutch Harbor, Alaska, Oct. 3, 2012. The ETS is a pre-staged package of equipment designed to use vessels of opportunity to assist disabled vessels requiring assistance in accessing a place of refuge in Alaskan waters. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

It was December 2004, when the cargo vessel Selendang Ayu ran aground on Unalaska Island, broke in two and spilled more than 330,000 gallons of fuel oil. Prior to running aground, several responding vessels attempted to tow the ship but were unsuccessful because the proper towing gear was not available at the time. The fallout from this event significantly highlighted a need for an emergency response system that could be rapidly deployed to help a vessel tow another vessel from imminent danger.

This incident was one of many catalysts which prompted the Coast Guard, the State of Alaska, the community of Unalaska and other Alaska-based response organizations to find a solution to the challenge of preventing future incidents like the Selendang Ayu.  Their efforts, lead by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and championed by Shirley Marquardt, the mayor of Unalaska, culminated with the development of the emergency towing system.

The ETS is a pre-staged package of equipment that may be deployed in the event a disabled vessel requires assistance in accessing a place of refuge. A manual that instructs responders on the operations of system as well as procedures for deployment accompanies the system. The system is designed to use vessels of opportunity to assist disabled vessels that are in Alaskan waters. It consists of a lightweight high performance towline, a messenger line used in deploying the towline, a lighted buoy, and chafing gear. These components may be configured to deploy to a disabled ship from the stern of a tugboat or airdropped to the ship’s deck via helicopter.

The ETS was first successfully tested in 2007, and has been deployed successfully several times in practice and in actual response with the most recent case being the response to the cargo vessel Golden Seas, which lost propulsion and narrowly missed running aground on Adak Island December 2010.  In this situation, the ETS was loaded onto an available tug which then used the system to take the Golden Seas under tow and safely deliver them to Dutch harbor where the ship could undergo repairs.

This valuable system was once again put into action during a simulated emergency off the coast of Unalaska Oct. 3, 2012.

In a joint exercise with the help of the cargo vessel Suah and tugs James Dunlap and the Gyrfalcon, an emergency scenario was implemented with the premise that the Sauh had lost propulsion at the entrance to Dutch Harbor and was drifting towards land.  The ETS was loaded onto the tugs and used to safely take the Suah undertow and pulled away from danger.

“The willingness of the Sauh crew to participate in this training evolution added a layer or realism to the event,” said Lt. James Fothergill, officer in charge, Coast Guard Marine Safety Detachment Dutch Harbor.  “Having an actual cargo vessel to work with during this drill added real world dynamics that practicing with a smaller vessel does not allow.”

The exercise is not only a learning experience for the crews who could be called upon in an emergency, but is also allows crew to inspect, maintain or even replace parts of the system, helping ensure that it will work properly when called upon.

“With the remoteness of many locations across Alaska, there may not always be a vessel with towing capabilities available for use in a response situation,” said Fothergill.  “Having the ETS allows us to use just about any vessel of opportunity in a response effort to help save lives and protect the maritime environment.  It is essential that we test and use this system regularly to help ensure that it is ready for use when needed.”

The personnel stationed at MSD Dutch Harbor monitored the safety of the event as the response crews use the ETS to take the Suah in tow.

“This was an outstanding evolution that went seamlessly with no injuries or problems,” said Fothergill. “It worked exactly as planned.”

With the success of the ETS, there are now two individual systems located in Dutch Harbor, one at the port, and one at the airport.  Both are located where they can be quickly deployed on board a ship or an aircraft and quickly delivered or utilized as needed.  There are also several other ETS sets located around Alaska including Valdez and Kodiak.