Responders head to disabled ship in Bering Sea

Emergency vessels rushed Saturday toward a struggling cargo ship carrying thousands of gallons of fuel oil that had been drifting near the far reaches of Alaska's remote Aleutian Islands, but began moving on limited power, officials said.

Engine problems caused the 738-foot Golden Seas, with a full load of canola seed, to drift in strong winds and rough waters in the Bering Sea early Friday, sparking concern it might run aground on an island.

The ship was about 28 miles north of Atka when improving weather allowed it to begin moving away from shore at about 4 mph late Friday afternoon, according to the Coast Guard and other responders.

A powerful commercial towing vessel was expected to reach the ship about mid-day Saturday while a Coast Guard cutter was expected by Sunday afternoon.

Responders said the vessel, which is managed by Allseas Marine, based in Athens, Greece, lost its turbo charger. That left it without enough power to overcome 29-foot seas and winds blowing at 45 mph. Conditions calmed later in the day, allowing the ship's limited power to potentially avoid running aground before the vessels arrive.

"That buys us some time," Coast Guard Capt. Jason Fosdick said Friday.

A Coast Guard C-130 aircraft flew over the Golden Seas and confirmed it was under way and moving away from land, Petty Officer David Mosley said.

Mosley said the Liberia-flagged ship is carrying more than 457,500 gallons of fuel oil, nearly 12,000 gallons of diesel fuel and 10,000 gallons of lube oil.

Officials said the ship was carrying a full load of canola seed, but didn't elaborate on the quantity. The ship is en route from Vancouver, Canada, to the United Arab Emirates, the Coast Guard said.

There were no reports of injuries among the 20 crew members on board.

The ship had been drifting to the southeast at about 2 mph, Mosley said, and concern about the vessel going aground on nearby islands prompted the Coast Guard to work with the owner to contract any available tugs to assist.

The cutter Alex Haley and the towing vessel, the Tor Viking II, headed to the Golden Seas from Dutch Harbor, about 350 miles away. Atka is about 1,300 miles southwest of Anchorage.

The Golden Seas is the latest example of the challenges involved in responding to incidents in the remote region, said Whit Sheard, an Oceana attorney who sits on the Aleutian Island Risk Assessment Advisory Panel, established with criminal settlement funds from the grounding of the Selendang Ayu six years ago.

The ship, the same size of the Golden Seas, ran aground Dec. 8, 2004, and broke apart on the north side of Unalaska Island, also in the Aleutians. About 66,000 tons of soybeans were lost.

During rescue operations, a rogue wave crashed into a Coast Guard helicopter lifting Selendang Ayu crew members from the freighter, and the aircraft crashed. Six of the 10 freighter crew members were killed.

Sheard said emergencies such as Friday's event again illustrate the crucial need for better response mechanisms, such as larger tugs in the area. Unalaska's Dutch Harbor is the only port in the region with a possible response vessel, according to Sheard, who was among those monitoring the response to the Golden Seas.

"The concern here is we'll have another major accident like the Selendang Ayu," he said.