KODIAK, Alaska - Five tugboat crewmen are safe after an accident on the Alaska Peninsula that left about 1.5 million pounds of frozen seafood on the shores of uninhabited Ukolnoi Island.
According to Coast Guard reports, the 78-foot tugboat Polar Wind sent out a distress call just before 9 p.m. Tuesday, reporting that it had run aground on Ukolnoi Island about 20 miles east of Cold Bay and was taking on water.
The Coast Guard Cutter Sherman, on patrol in the area, responded and launched its onboard helicopter. That helicopter pulled three of the boat's five crewmen to safety and took them to Cold Bay. An additional helicopter from Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak rescued two other crewmen and transported them to Cold Bay early Wednesday morning.
The Seattle-built Polar Wind was escorting a barge laden with 90 cargo containers, 30 of which were filled with frozen seafood. At the time of the distress call, which came near the midpoint of the tug's trip from Sand Point to Dutch Harbor, a nearby weather buoy recorded 41 mph winds and 18-foot seas. Conditions worsened in the following hour as the buoy recorded 26-foot seas.
Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class David Mosley said the rough seas - which have kept many boats in port over the last few days - apparently broke the towline between the tug and its barge.
"They reportedly broke the tow, and they were trying to re-establish it when they went aground," he said.
If the accident had occurred just a week earlier, rescue could have come quicker for the tugboat's crew.
The Coast Guard deploys an MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter to Cold Bay each fall as a precaution during the Bering Sea red king crab harvest. That helicopter was withdrawn Nov. 7, leaving the Sherman as the closest rescue force. The cutter, assigned to the Coast Guard's Bering Sea Patrol, was itself sheltering from rough conditions in the lee of some islands, Mosley said.
Because of the high seas and because the Sherman's onboard MH-65 Dolphin doesn't have the range of its Jayhawk sibling, the Sherman's help didn't arrive until 2:14 a.m. Wednesday.
Even then, the smaller Dolphin could only hold three of the tugboat's crewman, and that was only possible because the helicopter's rescue swimmer volunteered to stay behind on the grounded tug.
"Depending on the urgency of the situation, that's a determination of the crew as well as the rescue swimmer," Mosley said. "We're talking about the difference between somebody who is trained for those environmental situations and someone who isn't."
While the Dolphin took the three men to Cold Bay, a Jayhawk from Air Station Kodiak arrived over the Polar Wind to pull the two crewmen and swimmer aboard.
Steve Russell, the on-scene spill coordinator for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, said additional details of the accident were expected after the Polar Wind's crewmen were interviewed by the Coast Guard on Wednesday evening.
Approximately 18,500 gallons of diesel fuel were aboard the tug, and another 5,000 gallons were aboard the barge, Russell said. No fuel leaks were reported when the crew abandoned ship, but a Wednesday overflight to judge the situation was being delayed by bad weather, he said.
The tug and barge are stuck between a steep bluff and the sea on the south side of the uninhabited island, Russell said.
"Looking at the topography of that location and the NOAA charts, I don't think there's much of a beach," Russell said. "They may just be pushed up against whatever beach there is."
While diesel disperses rapidly after a spill, Ukolnoi is considered critical habitat for the endangered Steller sea lion and the threatened Steller eider.
If there is no fuel spill, the state's priority will shift to the security of the frozen seafood aboard the barge, Russell said.
State inspectors will have to verify whether or not that seaf ood is still safe to sell, even if the refrigeration for the barge's containers stays on.