Alaska tug, barge run aground after towline parts in heavy weather


A tugboat and barge ran aground in the Aleutian Islands after the towline snapped in high winds and seas.

The towline broke while the 78-foot Northland Services tug Polar Wind was towing the barge Unimak Trader from Sand Point to Dutch Harbor, Alaska, on Nov. 13, 2012.

The tug grounded while the crew struggled to reconnect the towline in six-to-eight-foot seas and 40-mph winds just before 2100. It went aground on the rocks 20 miles east of the village of Cold Bay on the southern shore of Ukolnoi Island, at the mouth of Pavlof Bay.

The 250-foot barge Unimak Trader is also beached after a towline parted.

“The official investigation will be going on for awhile,” said U.S. Coast Guard spokesman David Mosley, “but the apparent cause is that they were trying to recapture the barge — they said the towline had parted — when they went aground. They were apparently ducking some weather in that area when it happened.”

It’s unclear what caused the towline to break. No other mechanical issues were reported. As Polar Wind began taking on water, the 250-foot Unimak Trader drifted aground on the rocky beach about 400 yards away. The Coast Guard responded with a helicopter and rescued the five-person crew of the tug. No injuries were reported.

Calls to Northland were not returned.

The tug carried 20,500 gallons of diesel, and the barge had an estimated 1,800 gallons stored on deck for the crane, forklift and generators. An unknown amount of diesel spilled from the tug’s port side fuel tanks after the grounding. Initial fears were that as much as 6,000 gallons had been emptied, Mosley said.

“Two tanks were hulled,” he said. “The only signs were a light sheen the next day that dissipated within 24 hours. We responded when there were signs of potential pollution and boomed off the tug as a precautionary measure, but there was no further spilling. We did a flight and there were no signs visible after that.”

High winds and rough seas slowed salvage efforts, which stretched into early December. Northland Services hired Global Diving & Salvage for the salvage, with assistance from Magone Marine, both based in Dutch Harbor. Fishing boats from nearby King Cove carried divers and environmental responders and conducted sonar soundings. Anchorage-based oil spill response company Alaska Chadux responded in case of pollution, as did the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).

Both vessels are stranded near Cold Bay.

Though the shipping containers remained on the grounded barge for two weeks, their contents of nearly 1.5 million pounds of Trident Seafoods’ frozen halibut, cod, pollock and surimi remained frozen at negative 15° Fahrenheit, according to Steven Russell, on-scene coordinator for the Alaska DEC. The seafood was eventually transferred to the Northland barge Nushagak Trader and safely delivered to Dutch Harbor.

Divers discovered significant damage to the starboard side and bottom of the barge’s hull. Both Polar Wind and Unimak Trader were refloated and towed to another location for repairs.

By Professional Mariner Staff