The Coast Guard said in a release on its website that its crews were dealing with 20- to 30-foot waves and 30- to 40-knot winds while assisting the crews of the Royal Dutch Shell drilling barge, the Kulluk, and its support vessel, the Aiviq, near Kodiak.
"The weather on scene is testing the limits of our Coast Guard crews," Rear Adm. Thomas Ostebo, commander 17th District in Juneau, Alaska, said. "The professionalism of our air crews and cutter men and women have prevented the situation from deteriorating further.
"The 17th District is mobilizing all available cutters and aircraft in a layered response to ensure personnel safety for everyone on the disabled vessels and to prevent a potential grounding or environmental damage in the area."
Royal Dutch Shell requested the removal of the crew from the Kulluk, but the weather made the evacuation problematic. Plans to evacuate non-essential personnel from the Kulluk were being made, the Coast Guard said.
The engines on the Aiviq had broken down Thursday, leaving it and the unpowered Kulluk in danger of running aground on the coast of Kodiak Island.
Coast Guard helicopters from Air Station Kodiak delivered engine parts and technicians to the 360-foot Aiviq Friday so repairs to the ship's three engines could be made.
A second Shell support vessel, the Nanuq, hooked a towline to the barge, and both it and the Aiviq were working to keep the Kulluk under control.
The 282-foot Coast Guard Cutter Alex Haley had reached the troubled vessels early Friday and hooked a towline to the Aiviq which was still connected to the Kulluk. However, the heavy seas and high winds, combined with the mass of the Aiviq and Kulluk, caused the Alex Haley's towline to separate and become entangled in the ship's port propeller, forcing the ship to return to Kodiak for its own repairs. The Alex Haley did, however, buy time for the additional rescue options.
"I applaud the can-do spirit of the crew of the Alex Haley," Ostebo said. "They accomplished the nearly impossible given the weather conditions and bought valuable time. Without their efforts the overall situation would be much worse than it is now."
Another Shell vessel, the Guardsman, arrived Friday afternoon and joined with the Aiviq to tow the Kulluk, but it wasn't power enough to overcome the vessels' drift either and by 5:30 a.m. Saturday its towline had failed as well.