The Selendang Ayu Disaster in the Alaska Arctic

(from ASMA Report 2009)


On November 28, 2004, after loading 1,000 tonnes of fuel and 60,200 tonnes of soybeans, the Selendang Ayu departed Seattle, Washington, with a crew of 26 along the North Pacific Great Circle Route bound for Xiamen, China. Ten days later the 225-meter Malaysian-registered bulk carrier broke apart off the rugged coast of the Aleutian Islands of Alaska resulting in the deaths of six crew members, causing the crash of a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter and spilling an estimated 66 million metric tons of soybeans, 1.7 million liters of intermediate fuel oil, 55,564 liters of marine diesel and other contaminants into the environment further causing the deaths of seabirds and marine mammals.

A U.S. National Transportation Safety Board marine accident brief is the basis for this report. Despite passing inspection by port authorities and U.S. Coast Guard officials prior to leaving Seattle, the seven-year old Panamax class vessel encountered engine problems approximately 100 nautical miles from Dutch Harbor, the closest place of refuge, and about 46 nautical miles from the nearest point of land. After leaving port in Seattle, the ship had encountered heavy seas and between gale and strong gale force winds.

On his second transit of the Bering Sea, the vessel’s master, a citizen of India and a 32-year seagoing veteran, notified the harbormaster in Dutch Harbor via the vessel’s satellite phone he was having difficulties and needed assistance. The Coast Guard immediately dispatched the cutter Alex Haley but because of the rough seas could only reach a top speed of 10 knots. Nearly six hours later, the cutter reached the Selendang Ayu and attempted to slow its drift toward the coastline by attaching a tow line to the vessel until the tugboat Sidney Foss arrived, which was then approximately 11 nautical miles away.

In the meantime, the wind and sea conditions continued to deteriorate. Arriving on scene, the tugboat master reported seeing the Selendang Ayu lying beam to the sea in 7.6-meter seas, hammered by 45- to 55-knot winds. Some crew members were desperately struggling to remain on the bow as the freighter rolled 25 to 35 degrees with waves crashing over the deck amid passing snow and ice squalls. The remainder of the crew, some who had been up for some 41 hours, worked frantically to restart the engines.

On the scene, the Sidney Foss was able to slow the drift but unable to turn the stricken ship’s bow into the wind as the vessel drifted closer to the shore. A second tug, the James Dunlap, arrived from Dutch Harbor with sunrise 5 ½ hours away, noted the NTSB report. “Because of the sea state and the darkness, the masters of the Sidney Foss and the James Dunlap decided to wait until daylight before attempting to swing the bow of the Selendang Ayu around by putting a line on the stern.”

Then, some three hours before sunrise, the towline parted and the stricken vessel continued its now unabated drift toward Unalaska Island. At sunrise, with the Selendang Ayu picking up speed toward the coastline, the ship’s master dropped anchor in hopes to slow or even stop the drift. It almost worked.

The port anchor immediately caught, slowing and almost stopping the vessel’s drift. The feeling of relief was short-lived as some 15 minutes later the ship began slipping its anchor under the unrelenting pounding of the growing storm and started to drift at 2 knots toward shore. The weather continued to worsen with steep seas of 6 to 7.6 meters and periodic wind gusts of up to 65 knots, which occasionally pushed the waves to 9 to 10 meters. The Coast Guard suggested dropping the starboard anchor, “but the Selendang Ayu master said the starboard anchor might foul on the port anchor’s chain,” the report stated.

Several attempts to reestablish a towline failed and with now fading light and its proximity to shore, the Coast Guard recommended evacuating the crew. The master finally allowed a group of 18, those he considered the least essential for dealing with the emergency, to depart. Wearing lifejackets, but not the reddish-orange buoyant survival or immersion suit that protects against heat loss and ingress of water, they would be extracted in two groups. (At the time of the accident, the International Convention for Safety of Life at Sea, SOLAS, required a cargo vessel to carry at least three immersion suits for each lifeboat, unless the vessel had a totally enclosed lifeboat on each side. The Selendang Ayu carried two fully enclosed lifeboats, one port and one starboard and was equipped with three immersion suits. In an amendment effective July 1, 2006 the SOLAS regulation was changed to require one immersion suit for each person onboard a cargo ship. An exemption from this requirement for ships that voyage “constantly” in warm climates is not allowed for bulk carriers.)

Using a USCG HH-60 Jayhawk helicopter that had arrived from Cold Bay, Alaska, the first group of nine Selendang Ayu crew members were hoisted from the rolling deck. Then only a mile from shore, the ship’s port anchor was dropped. It caught. Shortly thereafter, a second Jayhawk helicopter hoisted the second group of nine sailors from the ship. Eight crew members remained on board and continued to work frantically on the engines. As darkness began to close in, the Coast Guard radioed the master and said they wanted to remove the remainder of the crew before sunset. Then came the first of several shudders as the vessel ran aground on a small underwater shelf about 130 meters offshore. Knowing the ship’s fate, the master radioed the Alex Haley and requested immediate extraction.

The eight remaining crew members gathered on the port bow, where the two previous evacuations had taken place. The vessel was rolling badly in the shallow water and increasing groundswell. Another HH-60 Jayhawk helicopter was dispatched from Dutch Harbor to the scene and a short time later the Alex Haley launched the smaller HH-65 Dolphin helicopter. Both aircraft reached the freighter around 6 pm with the larger Jayhawk helicopter performing the rescue. Fifteen minutes later all of the ship’s crew, save the master and the USCG rescue swimmer, had been hoisted onboard when a huge rogue wave struck the bow of the freighter, sprayed up and engulfed the Jayhawk. The helicopter’s engines stalled, spun around causing its tail and mail rotor blades to slam into the side of the crippled ship and crashed into the sea next to the Selendang Ayu’s forward port side. The Dolphin helicopter, which had been hovering close by, immediately went into rescue mode and quickly recovered the three-member flight crew and the one Selendang Ayu crew member who survived the crash. With no other sign of survivors, the helicopter headed to Dutch Harbor. While the master and the Coast Guard swimmer were awaiting rescue, the ship broke in two on the rocks. After three hours of being bombarded by crashing waves, howling winds in total darkness, the ship’s master and the USCG rescue swimmer were hoisted on board the Dolphin, which had returned from its trip to Dutch Harbor. It was 10:35 pm on December 8, nearly 60 hours since the Selendang Ayu engines failed.


    Arctic Council, 2009, Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment (AMSA), Arctic Council.©