TSAVLIRIS SALVAGE GROUP - News & Announcements

The "CASTOR" Case and Its Ramifications - 2001 Mar 01

On New Year's Eve 2000, the Polish crew of the Cyprus flagged product tanker "CASTOR" spotted a crack running across the main deck of their vessel, which was labouring in rough weather about 25 miles off the coast of Morocco. At a time of year when most thoughts are turned towards celebrating the advent of another year, the crew were suddenly unsure about whether they would live to see 2001.


What the crew saw was captured on a video one of the officers shot from the relative comfort of the bridge. As the vessel pitched and rolled in the heavy swell, cargo sloshed in the tanks and you could clearly see a spray of gasoline gushing out of the 20-metre long crack across the number 4 centre and wing tanks. At the same time, an unearthly grinding sound was audible as the deck plates gnashed together along the fault-line.


The "CASTOR", an elderly but durable tanker that was fully insured and classed by the American Bureau of Shipping, was transporting a cargo of about 30,000 tonnes of unleaded gasoline from Constantza, Romania to Lagos, Nigeria. She now threatened to explode if friction between steel plates created a spark that ignited the vapour cloud emanating from the damaged tanks.


Initially, this was the stuff of nightmares for any crew and shipping company, with property and liability insurers also in the firing line. However, in the course of what was destined to become a six-week adventure, it also became a trial for the salvors engaged to assist the ship, as well as an alarming test-case for the international maritime community. Specifically, the "CASTOR" case would raise questions over the preparedness of coastal states to offer refuge or shelter to vessels in grave danger, and by implication undermine notions that in this day and age contingency plans are in place to cope with maritime emergencies according to tried and tested procedures.


In the immediate wake of the structural failure being detected, owners and the ship's master considered the nearby Moroccan port of Mellila as the natural port of refuge. However, the Moroccan authorities not only refused a request to approach their coast, they ordered the tanker to move at least 40 miles offshore. A Moroccan coast guard vessel was dispatched to ensure this order was respected.


On January 3, 2001, the shipowners engaged the TSAVLIRIS SALVAGE GROUP to assist and salve the tanker under a Lloyd's Open Form. By coincidence, the world's largest salvage tug, "NIKOLAY CHIKER", operated by TSAVLIRIS, was on a positioning voyage in the vicinity and TSAVLIRIS had the tug at the tanker's side the same evening. Conventional towage by the bow was ruled out at this stage, since there was concern that the strain could break the vessel in two; besides this, no crew members were prepared to go forward as this would mean crossing the area of the crack on her deck. So, a connection was fastened to the stern of the tanker.


The next day, the tanker was carefully towed into the Spanish Search and Rescue Area with the aim of seeking shelter in the bay of Almeria and conducting a ship-to-ship transfer of the cargo in relatively calm waters. A special salvage team was already on its way while inert gas generators and auxiliary equipment had been immediately mobilized from various European locations to get on with the job. In addition, the salvors were scouring the market to engage suitable lightering tankers to accept the cargo and carry it on to the "CASTOR's" final destination.


But the Spanish were no more keen than Morocco to let the ship approach their coastline. They ordered the convoy to remain at least 30 miles off shore until they could inspect the tanker and assess her condition. As it started to become clear that the idea of taking the "CASTOR" closer to Spain could encounter political problems, alternative destinations were canvassed, starting with Gibraltar.


On January 5, these fears were fully borne out. Two inspectors from the Spanish Coast Guard visited the tanker to assess her condition, staying on board for one hour and perusing the ship's documents and structural record. On the basis of their inspection, later that day Madrid denied permission to draw closer to the coast and issued a permanent order barring the convoy for a radius of 30 miles from land. The combined effect of the Moroccan and Spanish decision meant that the "CASTOR" could not get within 45 miles of Gibraltar, the next possibility. The same evening, the crew understandably followed a Spanish request to abandon the vessel as it was considered too dangerous to remain on board. The Spanish authorities branded the "CASTOR" "substandard" in interviews with the media, despite serious protests from her class society, ABS. Thereafter, all approaches to Spain with regard to the salvage plan, safety precautions, technical analyses of the situation and other aspects of the proposed operation were to prove futile. Spain's maritime authority made it starkly clear that it felt its responsibility had ended with the assistance to the crew. The salvors were left in charge of a ship that was considered a time-bomb, which no-one wanted.


To TSAVLIRIS and others who were actively involved in finding a solution to the tanker's plight, including ABS and the Cypriot flag administration, the ironies in the situation were immediately obvious. The fact that a professional international salvor had gone to the rescue and the casualty was now attached to a big, modern salvage tug was of obvious comfort to countries in the region. But at the same time, no littoral state wished to be meaningfully involved in the emergency. In some cases, they did not even wish to hear or read the salvors' action plan. TSAVLIRIS, however, had not only contracted to use its best efforts to salve the tanker and her cargo, it felt obliged to consider the environmental dangers posed by the cargo and the muddy waters of liability if anything went wrong. From the outset, the operations team was headed by Nan Halfweeg of Princess Marine, a salvage master of worldwide reputation who had personally handled more than 500 casualties, and TSAVLIRIS' naval architect Nikos Pappas, again a veteran of countless salvage operations. The team also included highly experienced salvage officers, engineers and tug crews. An important figure was a marine chemist whose job was to constantly monitor the "CASTOR's" cargo and analyse the status of vapour in the damaged cargo tanks. Any build-up in oxygen content was to be steadily monitored since this was the key to whether the tanker was in danger of exploding or not.


A successful ship-to-ship transfer required not only having the right team of professionals and the proper equipment on site but calm conditions to effect the transfer. Spain and Morocco had specifically ruled out finding a more sheltered spot closer to shore in what was an unusually rough winter in the region. Other rejections swiftly started to come in, so that in total eight Mediterranean nations banned the "CASTOR" within 30 miles of their shores. The only country that signaled its readiness to offer the tanker shelter, subject to a fair assessment, was Cyprus, the vessel's flag state. However, Cyprus was located at the other extreme of the Mediterranean. TSAVLIRIS and ABS had concurred that while the tanker was structurally sound, it was extremely doubtful whether she would survive a long tow in her present condition - and the same applied to the time factor as simply remaining on the high seas being battered by heavy weather would eventually lead to her breaking up.


While there was very little cooperation from coastal states, the "CASTOR" emergency did mark unprecedented cooperation between salvor, class society and flag state. TSAVLIRIS maintained permanent 'hot line' communication with a "CASTOR" crisis team at ABS' headquarters in Houston that helped to fully evaluate discharge procedures and ballasting sequences as well as the overall status of the operation. Apart from diplomatic initiatives, the Cypriots hosted a crisis meeting later in January where salvors, shipowners, class society, environmental experts and proxies for the IMO discussed the various contingencies and problems. Littoral states in the region were invited but failed to attend.


Every possible aspect and solution to the problem was discussed, and all agreed that the ongoing salvage operation offered the best hope. Even environmental bodies, agreed that a ship-to-ship transfer should ideally be effected closer to shore. Experts confirmed that unleaded gasoline, though not the worst pollutant of all, is toxic and that, if the tanker broke up or sank, the toxicity could enter the food chain, a risk increased by the fact the Mediterranean is a closed sea.


In the second week in January, TSAVLIRIS started to put into effect its plan to render the "CASTOR" safe, even though there was as yet no clear answer to the transshipment problem. Throughout the operation a full-time safety officer had the sole duty of ensuring a strict safety regime was complied with. For example, no-one working on board should carry loose objects that might fall and inadvertently cause a spark. All equipment, both large and hand-carried, was moved gingerly and properly secured at all times. A first priority was to seal the crack properly, a nerve-racking task that involved first removing a makeshift seal of cement that the crew had applied before abandoning ship. The cement was pried out by volunteers using wooden tools to avoid sparking and therafter the crack was sealed with a more flexible bond of polyurethane foam, silicon paste and rubber tape. This was accomplished amid a nauseating smell of exposed gasoline.


On January 11, the team was successful in inerting the three damaged cargo tanks, but rough weather during the next week persistently interrupted attempts to transfer both inert gas generators to the "CASTOR" and further progress was difficult. Finally, on January 21, a window of better weather allowed the smaller of two tankers chartered in by TSAVLIRIS to take the cargo, the Giovanna, to connect to the "CASTOR" and the entire quantity of 6,100 cubic metres of gasoline in the damaged number 4 tanks was transferred about 35 miles off Cartagena. It had been hoped that the Spanish authorities would relent once the number 4 tanks were empty and inerted. However, they rejected the idea that the tanker - now significantly 'safer' - could come closer to shore to complete the operation under better conditions. Instead, almost as soon as the partial transfer was completed, the convoy was forced to move east as severe storms approached the region.


Moving eastwards, the convoy had to grapple with an especially difficult towage. The "CASTOR" was not following well and shearing badly. From that moment on, a team was put on board to permanently man the helm and maintain engine and bridge watches. Fleeing gale force winds proved futile, and at the start of February, the convoy was caught between Malta and Tunisia when a violent storm of over force 10 struck, with winds at times bordering on 12 Beaufort, or hurricane force. The attending tugs and the two shuttle tankers fled to shelter, but this was denied the "NIKOLAY CHIKER" and her tow. In the end, the Tunisian authorities allowed the casualty temporary shelter in a quieter spot near the port of Kelibia.


Finally, a small window of better weather made it possible to connect the second lightering tanker, Yapi, to the Castor. On February 8, the remainder of the "CASTOR's" gasoline cargo was transferred. From then on, it was relatively plain sailing. In Malta, the Giovanna transferred its cargo to the Yapi which eventually carried the cargo to its ultimate destination in Nigeria. The "CASTOR", now inerted, was towed safely to Greece and redelivered to her owners.


Reflecting on the "CASTOR" operation, from a salvor's point of view, the tale was primarily one of sleepness nights, sweating about the safety of salvage crews and technicians as well as the huge financial exposure. At first sight, the "CASTOR" represented a two-week salvage operation at most and the fact that it ran on so long, with costs approaching $1m per week, was enough to immediately put any salvage company to financial hardship. Smaller salvage firms might have been forced to abandon the case earlier, with unpredictable consequences. It has been independently estimated that the salvage operation will cost insurers of hull and cargo up to $2m more than they would have had to pay had the cargo transfer taken place off Cartagena as initially proposed. At the time of writing, nearly eight months after the event, the salvor - as is common - has not received any remuneration for its services. At arbitration, the salvor's claim from shipowner and cargo interests amounted to $6.5m - from a combined value of ship and cargo estimated to be no more than $7.5m. Moreover, the salvors claim for pollution exceeded $6m.


And this was a successful operation, achieved supposedly against the odds. On several occasions, the "CASTOR" was placed in imminent danger over and above its potentially fatal structural cracking. Some of the weather encountered at various points in the operation may have overcome a less sturdy ship - and one thinks here of the earlier "ERIKA" accident, where a comparable tanker broke up off the coast of Brittany causing extensive pollution. One night while the convoy was still off Cartagena, a cargo ship apparently failed to spot all the lights rigged up on the "CASTOR" and the tugs. This vessel actually passed over the tow line, sailing between the "CASTOR" and the "NIKOLAY CHIKER". If it was not for the alertness of the tug's master, who made an emergency manoeuvre to slacken the connection, a three-ship conflagration and significant pollution could have resulted.


Although offering a 'port of refuge' is a maritime tradition, the reality is that it is now little more than a folk tale. The "CASTOR" episode was by no means the first instance where a risky-looking vessel has been refused not only access to a port but even the ability to shelter closer to the coast. Rarely, though, has a ship been turned into a pariah by so many nations on so little evidence.


During the "CASTOR" experience, it was evident that the original decision by one or two countries increased the pressure on other littoral states to slavishly follow suit, without as much as looking at the situation on its merits or properly inspecting the vessel for themselves. Indeed, a feature of the affair was the scant importance that local maritime authorities gave to risk assessment or the actual proposals for neutralising the danger that were placed before them. No-one was interested in evaluated the safety and effectiveness of the salvors' plans, that were fully supported by the tanker 's flag state and class society. Indeed, no thought was spared for salvors' lives, property owners, insurers' interests or even the wider marine environment. All other considerations paled in importance compared with each country's perceived political need to get the ship out of its 'back yard'.


Above all, the "CASTOR" case demonstrated that there is currently not a satisfactory international system for dealing with all maritime emergencies and protecting the environment. It is hard to have confidence in national contingency planning when these seemingly do not take into account the type of situation posed by the "CASTOR". Furthermore, questions are raised as to the rights countries may exercise in banning vessels from waters that are beyond their strict territorial limits, as well as their potential liabilities in such cases under regional pollution conventions and international anti-dumping accords.


A quick solution to this gap in the current safety net may be difficult to define and implement. However, any solution needs to be underpinned by principles of decency and reciprocity that are behind other aspects of maritime cooperation, including that other illustrious maritime tradition of going to the aid of any vessel in distress at sea. Politicians need to acknowledge that a ship, cargo or crew of your nationality might be next to need a helping hand.


Clearly, any solution must be truly international and applicable to any vessel seeking shelter. It may smack of political correctness in this present age to punish a vessel that is, rightly or wrongly, deemed 'substandard', but the mere fact that a ship finds herself in danger ought to make the causes of her trouble of secondary consideration.


Finally, the "CASTOR" case has underlined the difficulty that individual officials face in making and justifying their decisions about enabling vessels to take advantage of shelter when political factors of the moment hold sway. A structure must be found to bring such cases into the realm of proper risk assessment and out of the realm of politics. For example, the "CASTOR" may well have been helped if there had been an onus on the littoral state to either approve the salvors' action plan, or else propose its own alternative. There was no such onus, and local authorities behaved with blithe indifference to the various human, economic and environmental consequences that might have come about.


The "CASTOR" case has left considerable anxiety about future instances where a tanker finds itself in distress. Unfortunately, it is all too easy to imagine a similar emergency involving, perhaps, a laden VLCC, where costs and liabilities could reach ruinous proportions if the ship is abandoned to her fate.