Coast Guard imposes ice rules in Upper Cook Inlet

Posted: Friday, November 17, 2006

The recent spell of cold weather and forecasts of severe icing conditions to come later this winter prompted the U.S. Coast Guard this week to institute Phase One ice rules in Cook Inlet and Southcentral Alaska.

Capt. Mark DeVries, captain of the port of Western Alaska, ordered the rules into effect Wednesday. These guidelines for operating in Alaska waters are designed to reduce the potential for casualties resulting from extreme frigid waters and the impact of ice on vessel systems and moorings, a Coast Guard press release said.

As temperatures fell and winds coursed across Southcentral Alaska over the past week, ice quickly began forming in Cook Inlet. This was somewhat earlier than last year when conditions didn’t require ice rules until Nov. 28.

The Coast Guard said last year’s icing was more severe than in the previous five years, and that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s ice forecast office has predicted 2006-2007 will be another severe ice season, though possibly less intense than last year.

Phase One rules apply north of 60 degrees 45 minutes North Latitude — basically north of a line between East and West forelands. Affected vessels and facilities were sent letters detailing the ice rules. They will remain in effect until rescinded next spring.

Among other things, the rules require all vessels to maintain vital systems in a condition able to operate under winter conditions in ice-filled waters and air temperatures to minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Vessels must maintain draft sufficient to prevent ice from sliding beneath the hull. Crews must be supplied with adequate personal protection gear for on-deck operations.

Various rules apply to under way and moored conditions. Still others oblige onshore facilities to follow their own ice procedures when deemed necessary.

As winter deepens, Phase Two rules may be imposed, which essentially extends the winter operating guidelines to all of Cook Inlet.

There are particular winter mooring guidelines for shore facilities and ships at the Kenai Pipeline Dock (KPL), Agrium and ConocoPhillips docks, which pay particular attention to the strength of flood currents, as well as guidelines for barge operations.

The Coast Guard noted that in February of this year during extreme icing conditions, the 600-foot-long, double-hulled oil tanker Seabulk Pride broke free of its moorings at the KPL Dock in Nikiski and grounded on the beach near the East Forelands about a half-mile away. No spill occurred, however the Coast Guard determined that at the time of the incident, the vessel was not in full compliance with the ice guidelines in place at the time.

Specifically, according to the published report, “the vessel did not meet the recommendations to be in immediate standby, was not moored in preparation for a worst-case scenario, and the bridge was not manned with an under way watch.”

The report said a combination of tidal conditions, poor line handling, and ice flows all contributed to the breakaway and subsequent grounding.

“The ice flows and current were the clear initiating factor in the casualty,” the report said.

The only sure way to have prevented the accident, the Coast Guard said, would have been to require the ship to leave the terminal during the icing conditions.

Out of the incident and ensuing investigation have come numerous recommendations to improve safety at the docks, including one stating that Coast Guard ice guidelines be rewritten to provide a clearer definition of “immediate standby,” and another that the Coast Guard conduct spot checks when extreme ice guidelines are in effect.

To that end, the District 17 press release said Coast Guard officials would be conducting increased shore-side spot checks of safety measures and require tests of steering, firefighting, ballast, winches, and other vital gear.

Hal Spence can be reached at

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