Sealand Express remains stuck on beach

Aug 31, 2003
Author: P&S

Attempts to refloat the grounded Maersk Sealand container ship Sealand Express on Friday and Saturday were unsuccessful, although salvors managed to move the ship forward about 180 metres and swivel her bows 25 degrees outward towards Table Bay.

Further attempts this weekend were subsequently ruled out and the focus revert to cargo removal and further dredging of the sandbar trapping the vessel. Meanwhile much of Sunday was spent ballasting the ship in order to weigh her down and hold her position.

Earlier the salvage master in charge of operations, Captain Dave Main of Smit Marine said he was not confident of getting the ship off at this time but that advantage had to be taken of the spring high tide. Salvors had hoped that strong swells forecast for the weekend would assist by lifting the ship in concert with the pull of four salvage tugs – Pacific Brigand, Pacific Ariki, Pacific Worker and Pacific Vergina.

Although the swell arrived, it did not make the difference required and indeed one of the tow cables broke with a loud twang before recoiling back towards the stranded ship. This morning (Sunday) the ship remained firmly stuck in Table Bay.

Meanwhile a controversy has broken out with accusations reported in the local media that personnel manning the Cape Town Port Control lacked experience and had no sea-time.

The claim came from an anonymous ‘source at the harbour,’ who maintained that staff with a nautical background would have reacted differently. “Until last year there was always a master mariner on duty in the (port control) tower, but now this has been done away with; they’ve trained non-seafarers into the job.”

The claim refers to reports, since confirmed by the South African Maritime Safety Authority (SAMSA), that port control warned the Sealand Express on at least three occasions that the ship appeared to be dragging anchor and was heading for the beach. On each occasion the ship was reported to have responded with the equivalent of “that’s okay, we have matters in hand.” Shortly afterwards the ship went aground.

The National Ports Authority (NPA) dismissed the anonymous argument that inexperienced people were on duty and says its people have been properly trained for the job and there has been no compromise on levels of skill training.

A spokesman for SAMSA pointed out that the VTS (Vessel Tracking System) was purely an advisory function for ships outside harbour and that the master retained full responsibility for the safety of his ship. But the anonymous source maintained that port control could have put more assertive pressure of the American ship such as enquiring the state of the engines, and alerting Smit Marine (the salvage company) and SAMSA.

Earlier in the week Environmental Affairs & Tourism minister Valli Moosa, under whose department any cleanup of the sea and beaches would fall, called for a stricter approach. “We certainly have a duty to relook at our current approach to the precautionary principle with a view to strengthen the leverage of our maritime authorities to deal with this kind of incident,” Moosa said.

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