R/V Sikuliaq Delayed by Mechanical Problems

R/V Sikuliaq as seen on acceptance trials on Lake Michigan recently. Photo courtesy of D. Oliver, UAF.

R/V Sikuliaq as seen on acceptance trials on Lake Michigan recently. Photo courtesy of D. Oliver, UAF.

By Rick Smeriglio for Seward City News – During its acceptance trials on Lake Michigan in March, engineers discovered that Research Vessel Sikuliaq had lost proper lubrication in its starboard propulsion unit. According to Sikuliaq Project Manager Daniel Oliver, the fix will require re-engineering the suction system whereby the vessel circulates and cools lubrication oil in its sophisticated Z-drive propulsion system. Shipbuilder Marinette Marine Corporation of Wisconsin will put the vessel into a graving dock in Sturgeon Bay, WI on Friday and Saturday, April 11 and 12. The delay to fix the problem may take 3 weeks and add about a million dollars to the $200-million project.

National Science Foundation will own and University of Alaska Fairbanks will operate R/V Sikuliaq. The vessel will homeport in Seward. It features Z-drive propulsion that allows the propeller to swivel 360 degrees horizontally, thereby affording exceptional maneuverability. Z-drive eliminates need for a rudder. The fix requires removal of both starboard and port propulsion units. Because builder Marinette has no dry dock capable of handling the 261-foot ship, Sikuliaq will go into Bay Shipbuilder’s grave dock, essentially a water-filled enclosure that pumps dry, as does a canal lock.

Finnish engine manufacturer Wärtsilä will pay for work done by Bay Shipbuilders. As vessel owner, NSF will bear some costs, including delay costs. The project has suffered other delays that have put it behind originally scheduled arrival in Seward at UAF Seward Marine Center dock.


Oliver explained that Sikuliaq lost suction in tubes that remove oil from a reservoir, deliver it to drive gears and then return it to the reservoir. The pump that creates suction did not fail, but rather, the tubes lost contact with oil. Because oil could not circulate, it began to overheat. Only the starboard side lost suction, but both sides will need re-engineering of the entire lubrication system.

During acceptance trials through icy Lake Michigan, Sikuliaq maintained propulsion, but only at half power as directed by the engineers. Low water temperatures and low RPM’s likely prevented significant damage. Warmer waters and higher output might have yielded a different outcome.

Oliver said, “I’d much rather have it break down in the Great Lakes than way up in the arctic.”

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