Unalaska Tests Emergency Towing System Ahead of Shipping Boom

The Aleutian Chain already gets a serious amount of vessel traffic, and the shipping route is set to get a lot busier as the Arctic warms up and as Canada prepares to increase oil exports to Asia.

That opens Unalaska up to the risk of maritime disasters, like the Selendang Ayu spill that happened in 2004. One of the ways to cut that risk is to make sure distressed vessels can be towed safely in rough and remote conditions. That’s where the emergency towing system comes in.

Last Wednesday, the city conducted its annual ETS drill in Unalaska Bay. The whole exercise took about three hours, and it wasn’t without a few hiccups. Mayor Shirley Marquardt said the team was prepared to cancel the drill because of high winds.

That took some participants by surprise, including Louis Audette. He’s part of the Aleutian Island risk assessment panel, representing the tank, barge, and tanker industry, and was observing the drill in person for the first time.

“To me, there’s always the safety issue in a training mission,” Audette said. “But to get some realism, I’m excited about doing it on a not-quite-nice day,” he said.

The weather calmed, and the participating vessels headed out to the bay. The 400-foot container ship Suah played the part of the distressed vessel. The tugboat Gyrfalcon was supposed to rescue the Suah twice – first, by deploying a tow line to the Suah.

Then, the tugboat was supposed to retrieve the line from the Suah, to mimic what would happen if a helicopter dropped a towing kit onto the deck of a distressed ship from the air — but that didn’t happen.

The tugboat James Dunlap was on-site to host observers from the risk assessment panel, but it wasn’t supposed to participate in the drill. Instead, the James Dunlap carried out the second tow.

In the middle of it, a temporary line that the Gyrfalcon crew had attached to the towing system snapped. The Gyrfalcon’s first mate, Paul Hanson, explained what happened.

“That’s a big ship and this is a lot of horsepower in that tug,” said Hanson. “That was merely to get it on deck and then set the line on the back deck like they’re doing right now.”

Back at City Hall, drill organizers said the problems were due to a lack of communication. They promised to get the tug captains more involved in planning the exercise next year.

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