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Containership loses propulsion, drifts within six miles of Aleutians

Sep 29, 2017 11:47 AM
Laura Maersk transferring cargo in Lyttelton, New Zealand, in 2013.

Courtesy Bernard Spragg

Laura Maersk transferring cargo in Lyttelton, New Zealand, in 2013.

The containership Laura Maersk lost propulsion near Alaska’s Aleutian Islands and drifted within six miles of land before an emergency tugboat arrived.

The 872-foot ship operated by Maersk Line was sailing the great circle route to Asia when its engine failed at about 1700 on July 14. It was roughly 12 miles north of Akutan Island on the eastern end of the Aleutian chain.

Two tugboats arrived from Dutch Harbor on nearby Unalaska Island. One brought Laura Maersk under control and the other towed it back to port after the ship had drifted for seven hours.

Maersk Line spokesman Marko Mihajic attributed the propulsion failure to “the malfunction of one of the turbochargers, which resulted in the main engine being disabled.”

“No injuries to the crew, no further damages to the vessel nor pollution have been reported and the vessel was at no time at the risk of grounding,” he continued.

The Danish-flagged Laura Maersk was built in 2001 and can hold up to 4,258 TEU, although it’s not clear how many containers were on board during this voyage. The ship carried more than 51,000 gallons of marine diesel when it lost propulsion while en route to Busan, South Korea, from Vancouver, British Columbia.

Authorities initially believed a fire disabled the engine, although later that proved unfounded, according to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). However, one of the ship’s three turbos blew, sending steel flying across the engine room.

By 0030 on July 15, the ship was within seven miles of Akutan Island and drifting toward shore at speeds ranging from 1.2 knots to 2.6 knots per hour, according to a DEC incident report.

The Coast Guard dispatched the cutter Midgett and an MH-60 helicopter crew from Kodiak to the ship’s location. The tugboats Millennium Falcon and Gretchen Dunlap responded from Dutch Harbor, roughly 35 miles from the drifting vessel.

Laura Maersk lost propulsion off Alaska in July while sailing the great circle route to Asia.

Pat Rossi illustration

The 4,400-hp Millennium Falcon met the ship sometime after midnight on July 15 and brought it under control. Laura Maersk never came closer than 5.5 nautical miles to Akutan, the DEC report said.

“Fortunately, they were able to respond and assist the Laura before anything bad could happen,” said Coast Guard spokesman Shawn Eggert, who added that cause of the incident remains under investigation.

The 6,772-hp Gretchen Dunlap towed Laura Maersk back to Dutch Harbor. The vessels arrived at about 0745 on July 15. The tug, operated by Dunlap Towing, carried a 10-inch towline supplied through Alaska’s Emergency Towing System.

The state established the program after a ship nearly grounded off Unalaska Island in 2007. Each towing kit consists of a messenger line, high-performance towline, lighted buoy and chafing gear, according to the DEC website. The kits can be deployed from helicopters or from response vessels.

Since launching about a decade ago, the state has expanded the program to major ports across Alaska. Maersk Line likely will be charged the cost of replacing the towing system, because they typically are not reused after service, according to Graham Wood, program manager for Alaska’s Prevention, Preparedness and Response unit.

Dutch Harbor is the last major outpost in the Aleutian Islands, and it serves as a waypoint on the great circle route between North America and Asia. There are currently three oceangoing tugs stationed in the port, including the 207-foot, 5,750-hp Resolve Pioneer.

Pioneer was en route to dry dock when Laura Maersk lost its engine, and the other two tugs responded to the ship, said Todd Duke, Alaska manager for Resolve Marine.

“A huge amount of traffic runs through Unimak Pass, and the greater the traffic and the closer to land, obviously the greater the risk,” Duke said, referring to passing ships.

Mihajic, the Maersk Line spokesman, said Laura Maersk underwent repairs and inspections in Dutch Harbor. The ship departed for Busan late on July 17.

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