Race against time to save Sealand Express

Aug 21, 2003
Author: P&S

Itís now a race against the elements as salvage teams from Smit Pentow battle to refloat the grounded container ship Sealand Express from a sandbank at Sunset Beach in Table Bay ahead of approaching bad weather.

An attempt made last night during high tide to refloat the vessel and involving three tugs including the powerful Smit tug John Ross, was unsuccessful, and the ship has settled into the sandbank to a depth of about 13 metres.

The South African Maritime Safety Authority (SAMSA) has now given instructions for the 3,700 tonnes of fuel oil to be removed from the vessel. In addition concern is being expressed about a number of containers on board, which have hazardous cargo including compressed gas, poisons and low-level radioactive material.

The ship is laying side on to the beach and is being pounded by waves.

The removal of the fuel could take up to four days, according to maritime experts, and will probably involve pipes floated across to small vessels or barges, as the water alongside is too shallow for larger ships to approach. However another cold front is expected to reach Cape Town by Saturday (23 August), and this could hamper these efforts.

Sealand Express is carrying up to four times the fuel oil carried by the bulker Treasure, which sank in Table Bay in June 2000. On that occasion 900 tonnes of oil was at risk and up to 50,000 penguins and countless other seabirds in Table Bay became endangered. This resulted in a massive cleanup programme involving tens of thousands of birds being treated for oil contamination.

As a preventative measure the local municipality has closed a nearby lagoon mouth using bulldozers and 800 volunteer workers are on standby in case fuel oil starts leaking and endangers wildlife.

The blue-hulled Maersk Sealand container ship, built in 1980, went aground early on Tuesday morning after appearing to drag her anchor. Although no-one is prepared to comment on the grounds that it is a matter for the official enquiry, there have been reports that the ship was warned several times from 04.00 by port control that she appeared to be drifting dangerously close to the beach.

On each occasion, according to these reports, the response from the ship was that everything was okay. Between 06.00 and 07.00 a call for assistance went out, with Cape Town National Ports Authority sending out two harbour tugs, but by the time the first arrived some 20 minutes later the ship had struck a sandbank within the surfline, about 150m from the beach. A salvage tug, Pacific Worker was also despatched to give assistance and although a line was taken onboard, it proved unsuccessful in pulling the ship clear. Sealand Express by that stage had turned side on parallel to the beach and was firmly aground.

The charterers of the vessel, Maersk Sealand, have declined to comment other than to say they have given details of the cargo to the authorities and are following the situation closely. The press release issued by the Danish company appears more intent on emphasising that the ship is owned and operated by United States Ship Management Inc (USSMI).

But, say the experts, the longer it takes the more difficult it becomes. And thatís without contending with Cape Townís winter storms.

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