COLUMN | Salvage! (or alternative employment for a rig supply vessel) [The Wet Detective]

The anchor handling tug Luma, formerly the supply/salvage vessel Smit-Lloyd 52, in 2009 (Photo: Gorter)

In 1976, Offshore Marine’s 699GT Scotian Shore had spent over a year on charter to various companies around the Red Sea and South West Indian Ocean. Early in July that year, she had returned to Majunga, Malagasy Republic (Madagascar), after completing a contract tow from Maputo (Laurenco Marques) to Durban. She was at the time on charter to an American insurance company for various duties concerned with the attempted salvage of an Italian three-legged jackup oil rig that had punched through and capsized in the Mozambique Channel. This operation having been unsuccessful, our vessel was employed for other duties, the contract tow being one.

On her arrival at Majunga, Scotian Shore was to await further orders, being expected to tow the 2,995GRT general cargo vessel Jayalakshmi, registered in India, from Majunga to Singapore for repairs. The orders were transmitted by the charterer’s representative, who arrived on board on the evening of June 23. On arrival he informed us of a vessel in distress south of the Malagasy Republic and ordered us to sail as soon as possible to assist her. Portable generators, pumps and other equipment were transferred from Jayalakshmi to Scotian Shore, and early on the morning of the 24th we set sail to search for the stricken vessel.

The vessel in distress, Nimbros, had formerly been of Japanese registry, having been sold by her Japanese owners to a Greek company earlier that month. She was on her first voyage from Japan to Greece via Durban and Cape Town. She carried a varied cargo, mainly consisting of timber, latex, and meal. A fire, caused by a fuel leak over her generators, had broken out in the upper level of the engine room.

Due to the engine room doors being wedged open, within a short time the whole superstructure (aft) was a blazing inferno. The crew took shelter on number 1 hatch cover, sending out a distress signal by means of their emergency lifeboat radio. Some 12 hours after the fire started they were taken off the ship by two other Greek vessels and eventually landed at Durban. The crew were safe and well except for the second engineer (on watch at the time of the fire) and another crew member who had burns.

It had taken three days for Scotian Shore to reach her last known position and three days of continuous searching. Unfortunately, our radio had developed a fault on the second day, so that our only means of communication with owners was by means of VHF radio and emergency lifeboat radio.

On the evening of the 30th, we located the stricken vessel. As we approached, smoke could be seen coming from her after hold, immediately forward of the superstructure. We stood off about half a mile and an inflatable was lowered. Our salvage team boarded the casualty and an initial survey was carried out.

When satisfied that it was safe enough, Scotian Shore went alongside. All available hands then took part in transferring the relevant equipment and stores. This was a particularly hazardous operation since weather conditions were poor, both vessels were pitching and rolling at different rates and, added to this, our powerful searchlights had attracted a large number of sharks to the area.

As daylight broke on July 2, 150mm holes were cut in the after hatch cover, and all available fire hoses rigged on Scotian Shore used to damp down the fire. Later that evening the portable generator was started and a flexible hose rigged from the generator’s exhaust through the holes into the hold to inert the space.

Meanwhile, the rest of that day was spent attempting to recover the starboard anchor of the stricken vessel. Her captain had let it out to the bitter end – all 10 shackles. This was a tricky operation, but with a little initiative, combined with good seamanship and our anchor-handling/towing winch, the anchor and chain were finally recovered the following day.

“What a feeling of satisfaction and relief was shared by all on board both ships when the tow was finally let go.”

When the fire had first started aboard the vessel, one of the lifeboats had been lowered, but was lost. The other lifeboat had disintegrated in the flames, leaving only the buoyancy tanks, engine and propeller remaining on deck. The master had ordered the building of a raft made up of timber and rope. This had also been carried away, with a fair amount of debris being caught around the anchor chain. Unfortunately, during the anchor recovery operation, some of this rope entered our starboard sterntube seal, and it soon became clear that sterntube oil was leaking into the sea.

By 20:00 on July 2, Nimbros was under tow, the towing spring being connected to her anchor chain, as we headed for Durban. Both vessels had been drifting slowly up the Mozambique Channel so that the tow took only two days. Then began an agonising six-day wait while financial security arrangements were made so that Nimbros was financially “covered” while in Durban.

The starboard sterntube oil leak had increased to such a proportion that for conservation and economic reasons, the starboard propeller shaft was locked in position. For approximately three days we steamed backwards and forwards outside Durban on one engine. On the morning of July 10, the weather was worsening to force seven to eight with a heavy swell. Clearance to enter the harbour was given just before lunch and, through the skillful ship handling of our skipper, our prize was shepherded through the entrance into the haven of the harbour, where the port tugs took over. What a feeling of satisfaction and relief was shared by all on board both ships when the tow was finally let go.

Four days passed with our prize in Durban while arrangements were made for drydocking of Scotian Shore. The South African press made a meal of the story, and articles appeared in most newspapers and magazines for almost a week. Eventually on July 14, Scotian Shore sailed for East London Drydock, arriving there two days later after passing through one of the most frightening storms that any of us had ever experienced. During the passage we were also involved in the rescue of two yachtsmen whose boat was breaking up.

Two days later it was an uneventful trip back to Durban, taking only half the time. We were welcomed back over the VHF radio by the harbour master, who was rather surprised to learn Scotian Shore had nothing in tow. Another four days were spent in Durban, replenishing her stores and equipment, much of which had been used during the salvage operation, and on July 22, she sailed for Majunga. Again, all on board were expecting to tow Jayalakshmi from Majunga to Singapore, but this was not to be.

Shortly after leaving Durban, information was received that a trawler had gone aground on a tiny island, Isle d’Europa in the Mozambique Channel. There was no other information and since the island was en route to Majunga, we headed for it. The island was sighted around lunchtime on the 25th, and on our approach a smoke flare was set off on one of the sand dunes. This could have been the crew of the trawler, there being no information as to whether they had been taken off the island. The trawler was eventually located on the South Eastern shore, high and almost dry.

An inflatable was lowered and three of our crew proceeded ashore with a case of beer to assist negotiations. After capsizing once in the surf, we landed to find ten French paratroopers, apparently the caretakers of the island, with one rifle between them. The crew of the trawler, identified as Mahaval, approximately 300 GRT, registered in La Reunion, had been taken off the island a few days earlier.

By listening to the ballast tank ventilators it was deduced that the trawler was badly holed in at least three places, which wasn’t surprising, since she had driven up on to the rocks at full speed. It was later reported that the man in the wheelhouse had been asleep at the time. Since nothing could be done for Mahaval, we thanked our “hosts” and headed yet again for Majunga.

“In poor weather conditions, a three-man salvage team, two port officials, and equipment were successfully transferred from the trawler to our vessel by small boat.”

We arrived at Majunga at approximately 19:00 on July 27. Scotian Shore was anchored, then most of the crew headed ashore for a welcome night out. The skipper and I arrived on the quay to be greeted by the charterer’s representatives. They informed us of another vessel in distress off the Gulf of Aden and asked us to sail immediately. Unfortunately, port clearance could not be obtained until next morning(!)

Information was received that the ship in distress was Tong Sing, a 10,150GRT general cargo vessel registered in Singapore. The vessel was reported to be Singapore-crewed, apart from the master and the chief officer, who were British. She had been on passage through the Red Sea from Europe to China when she was hit by bad weather off the Horn of Africa.

Tong Sing was reported to be a seven-hatch ship, four forward and three aft of her accommodation, carrying a general cargo. This included chromium ore, drums of paint, carbide and oil-rig equipment. Some of the oil-rig equipment, such as derricks and tanks, were stowed on deck, while the heavier mud and cement pumps were stowed in the number two lower hold. During the storm, one of these heavy pumps had broken loose, holing the shell below the waterline on the port side, resulting in flooding and consequent sinkage forward. The master altered course away from the bad weather down the coast of Somalia.

During the five-day passage from Majunga to the stricken vessel, her master and another vessel could be heard in conversation with Smit-Lloyd 52, a Dutch oil rig supply/salvage vessel based in Aden. The other ship was the 218,035DWT tanker Tantalus, owned by Ocean Fleets. Smit-Lloyd 52 was heading towards the stricken vessel from the Gulf of Aden with the weather against them, whereas the casualty was heading towards us with the weather behind us. From the positions reported by Smit-Lloyd 52, it appeared as if they would reach the troubled ship first; luckily, Scotian Shore made it first.

Tong Sing and Tantalus were sighted on the evening of August 1. Tantalus could be seen keeping station about a mile off her port side, the two ships making approximately four knots. After an initial look around Tong Sing, we also took up station with her, approximately a mile off her starboard side. The master of Tantalus informed us that his Lloyd’s open form had been accepted and that he was subcontracting to Smit-Lloyd 52. He was accordingly advised that Scotian Shore would remain on station in case of an emergency.

At this time all communications were being passed through Portishead radio. The charterer’s representative was still in Durban with the last salvaged vessel, and through Portishead we learned that he had chartered a private plane to fly salvage equipment to Mogadishu in Somalia. There he chartered a Russian trawler, which arrived alongside our vessel next morning. In poor weather conditions, a three-man salvage team, two port officials, and equipment were successfully transferred from the trawler to Scotian Shore by small boat.

Later that day, we returned to our position alongside Tong Sing on her starboard side and noticed that she was slightly lower in the water. Most of the deck cargo forward had been carried away in the initial storm and most of the deck fittings, companionways, etc., were also damaged. Her master’s intention was to put into Mogadishu, which he thought was a safe and sheltered port. Two of the port officials who were aboard with the charterer’s representative informed her master that she would not be allowed into Somalian waters unless Scotian Shore was in charge of the operation.

On the afternoon of August 3, both vessels approached Mogadishu, while Tantalus remained out in deeper water. The stricken vessel then remained a few miles off the port while the two officials were landed. Our visit to the port also revealed that it was far from safe or sheltered. There was a heavy swell running and most of the ships there had both anchors out while discharging into lighters. Once back with the damaged vessel, her captain then decided to set course for Mombasa, Kenya.

Again, we kept station with Tong Sing until next morning, when it became apparent that her condition was deteriorating rapidly, the bow being even deeper in the water. Her foredeck was awash and each wave was breaking over the main deck. At this time, Scotian Shore‘s Lloyd’s Open Form was accepted by the master while Tantalus continued her voyage to Europe, Smit-Lloyd 52 still being absent from the proceedings. Apparently an eight-man Smit-Lloyd salvage team and equipment had arrived in Mogadishu but had been detained by the immigration authorities. There were also rumours that Tasman Zee, one of Smit-Lloyd’s larger salvage vessels, was in the area.

“The arbitration award to the owners and crew of Scotian Shore for the first salvage operation was made in full early the following year.”

We decided that we should tow the casualty to Diego Suarez on the northern tip of Madagascar. The two ships were making around four knots in a south-westerly direction and the weather was worsening. Our prize hove to, so that Scotian Shore could go alongside her lee side, whilst all available crew assisted in the operation of transferring men and equipment up to her deck. This was quite a hazardous operation since both ships were lurching about heavily. On one occasion damage was sustained to the stores derrick and the after bulwark, which was set down to approximately 50 degrees.

During the operation the charterer’s representative, two of his assistants, two of our seamen, and our second engineer transferred to the other vessel. They had volunteered knowing the dangers involved, one of which was acetylene gas being emitted due to flooding of drums of carbide in the number three hold.

Our prize was to be towed stern first to reduce the wash over her decks, and by 8 pm, having locked her rudder and propeller, the tow was connected and commenced in the direction of Diego Suarez. This was the nearest safe port with dry-docking facilities large enough to take our prize.

Due to the weather, average speed for the first two days was only around three knots, but speed picked up as the weather improved. The six men were still on board our tow keeping the pumps, which were coping well, running at full capacity. They were sleeping rough but eating with her crew.

Eight days later, on the evening of August 12, we arrived off the narrow harbour entrance of Diego Suarez. The entrance has shallows and rocks dotted all around and the operation was made even more tricky by our tow’s deeper than normal draft. Two small tugs and the pilot boat came out to meet us and an initial attempt to enter was aborted because of bad weather and fast currents.

A second attempt to enter the harbour was made the next morning at high water. Again, the two tiny tugs were unsuccessful in their attempts to get a line on board, but the pilot managed to scramble aboard the tow. The tow wire had been shortened as much as possible, but our charge still slewed about from side to side, worrying all concerned. This attempt was successful thanks only to the excellent ship-handling and navigation of our skipper. By lunchtime, our prize was safely anchored in the bay, off the town of Diego Suarez, where repairs were to be carried out.

On the evening of Friday, August 13, Scotian Shore returned to Majunga to tow Jayalakshmi (remember her?) around to Diego Suarez to act as a work base for the salvage team. She also had equipment on board essential to the repair operations. We returned to Diego Suarez with Jayalakshmi on August 21.

The salved vessel had too deep a draught to enter the drydock; therefore, temporary repairs were needed, including a patch over the gash in the port side of number two hold. This required the discharge of the cargo from the number two hold to lighters, a patch welded over the four-foot underwater gash, pumping out of the hold, fresh water washing of the cargo and then restowing. Scotian Shore assisted in all these operations, carrying and pumping the fresh water and shifting lighters.

Our prize was handed back to her owners on August 29, and eventually entered the drydock on August 31, where she was fully repaired and returned to service.

The arbitration award to the owners and crew of Scotian Shore for the first salvage operation was made in full early the following year. The second salvage settlement was made between her owners, cargo concerns, owners and crew of Scotian Shore later the following year. All were happy that they had been adequately recompensed for their labours.

See more stories from this month’s Tug and Salvage Week here.

Mike Wall

Mike Wall has been a marine educationalist for more than 50 years, writing training modules and books on various shipping technical subjects. Mike has also been a marine surveyor and consultant for more than 30 years, operating his own company in New Zealand, Fiji and Hong Kong. Due to his qualifications and experience he has been appointed to carry out many varied investigations and to give expert opinions. He is also an accredited mediator.