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Cruise-ship Evacuation Exercise Begins as Luxury Liner Prepares for Arctic Ocean Transit

National Weather Service

The U.S. Northern Command and Coast Guard have launched a major field-training exercise off Alaska’s northwest coast. Arctic Chinook is intended to demonstrate how local, state and federal agencies would respond to a simulated cruise ship accident. Coincidentally, a big luxury cruise ship will sail through the area while the exercise is under way. And to further complicate things, bad weather has just set in.

Coast Guard Commander Mark Wilcox says Arctic Chinook planners have had to incorporate some extra precautions into the exercise due to rough weather that set in over the weekend over the Bering and Chukchi seas. 

“We are having to adapt our exercise just slightly to accommodate what is going to be gale-force winds,” Wilcox said in an interview Monday.

The National Weather Service had issued a gale warning effective through this evening for waters off the Seward Peninsula, where the exercise will be held. It’s also where the luxury liner Crystal Serenity and its 1,600 passengers and crew will soon be traveling through en route to the Northwest Passage and on around to New York. The weather service predicted the storm would whip up 35-to-45-knot winds off Alaska’s coast, and it issued a winter storm warning and forecast up to 8 inches of snow on the western end of the North Slope.

Wilcox says the Coast Guard and the U.S. Northern Command, or NorthCom, scheduled Arctic Chinook for now because usually it’s the best time of year to conduct such an exercise.

“We place a lot of these sort of key events – we time them for August, because we expect to get the best weather and least sea ice,” he said. “But Mother Nature doesn’t always let us move forward as planned.”

Credit U.S. Coast Guard
The cutter Stratton is one of three Coast Guard ships participating in Arctic Chinook.

Wilcox says the exercise is intended to test the ability of local, state and federal emergency responders to rescue 200 passengers from a cruise ship that’s run into trouble in those waters, The scenario calls for bringing passengers to shore around Tin City, near the westernmost tip of the Seward Peninsula – where rescuers would face their next logistical challenge. (This morning, organizers announced they’d moved the evacuation portion of the exercise to the Kotzebue Long Range Radar Site, due to rough weather.)  

“So,” Wilcox said, referring to the original exercise scenario, “how do we keep people alive on the beach while the secondary round of rescue assets that will bring them to an Arctic hub or village? How do we keep alive in that time span?”

The exercise scenario called for responders on the beach to triage the evacuees, sending uninjured passengers to Nome, then on to Anchorage. Fifty people will play the role of injured passengers, who’ll be taken initially to Kotzebue, says Army Col. Michael Forsyth. He’s chief of staff for Alaskan Command, the NorthCom subordinate agency based at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson that’s helping the Coast Guard manage the training exercise.

Credit Gina Caylor/U.S. Coast Guard
A member of the Stratton's crew signals to the pilot of a Coast Guard helicopter during a training exercise held earlier this month off Alaska's northern coast. The agency has stationed two MH-60 helicopters in Kotzebue to help it respond more quickly to emergencies around the remote Arctic expanse.

“There’s about 50 folks who will actually get in lifeboats – they are going to be … casualties that the municipal community will have to react to.”

Forsyth says Arctic Chinook will involve up to thousand people from several agencies, along with three ships, about a dozen aircraft and many other types of equipment. He says agencies involved include U.S. Army Alaska; Air National Guard; federal Homeland Security Department and its state counterpart and the Arctic Domain Awareness Center, Homeland Security’s University of Alaska-affiliated research arm.

“Canada is also contributing to the exercise a helo (helicopter), a fixed-wing aircraft and also dozens of personnel,” he said.

Forsyth says other Arctic nations are sending observers. He says management of the complex exercise will be done out of the Alaskan Command’s facilities at JBER, where many of the agencies already have offices.

“With all these disparate entities, it takes a lot of cooperation,” he said. “So that cooperation is critically important to understand and to get the roles and responsibilities right before you get the actual incident.”

Credit Crystal Cruises
Coast Guard officials say Crystal Cruises, the California-based company that operates the Crystal Serenity, has worked extensively with the U.S. and Canadian coast guards and other agencies to prepare the ship and its crew for the cruise from Alaska to New York City. It's the biggest cruise ship yet to sail through the often icy waters of the Northwest Passage.

Forsyth says the training is needed, because the Pentagon has concluded that shipping around Alaska will increase further in the years ahead, as sea ice continues to recede and make the Arctic Ocean more accessible.

“In the state of Alaska, we have never seen a cruise ship with 1,500 passengers circumnavigating the Arctic,” he said. “So, this is a first. So, the requirement to have the personnel and the assets available to conduct a search and rescue operation of that magnitude has not been in place, because it just never happened and there was never a need.”

Arctic Chinook began Monday and is now scheduled to end Friday. The Crystal Serenity, anchored off Nome as of late Monday, was scheduled to arrive in New York on Sept. 16.

Editor’s note: This story has been revised to include updated information on weather forecasts and the Arctic Chinook schedule, including relocation of the portion of the exercise originally scheduled to be held in Tin City. Exercise organizers moved the venue for that portion to the Kotzebue Long Range Radar Site, due to rough weather.

Tim has worked in the news business for over three decades, mainly as a newspaper reporter and editor in southern Arizona. Tim first came to Alaska with his family in 1967, and grew up in Delta Junction before emigrating to the Lower 48 in 1977 to get a college education and see the world.