05-Dec-2004 -- Mid November I joined again my old "Nova Scotia" in St. Petersburg, where we discharged a consignment of frozen beef from Brazil. Upon completion of discharging our next employment was already fixed: Loading 2500 tons of seed potatoes in the small Dutch port of Harlingen (Province of Fryslân) for Mostaganem in Algeria.
Potatoes are not just potatoes. There are many types with different shape
and taste. They bear such melodic names as e.g. Bartina, Spunta, Liseta, Rodeo, Fabula and Desiree. Loading was completed on December 3rd, and today, after having transited the English Channel, we arrived at 49N 6W.
This confluence is extremely far offshore, and the closest land is the small
Île d'Ouessant (Ushant Island) on the nortwestern tip of France. Ushant is a very busy corner. All traffic between the Mediterranean, West and South Africa, South and Central America and the Northern European ports converges here. An uninterrupted chain of ships is travelling around this most important corner - 24 hours a day and 365 days per year.
Needless to say that especially the French Government is extremely concerned
about the environmental hazards such a heavy traffic and an incident resulting thereof may cause. Recently, the traffic separation lanes around Ushant have been shifted farther offshore, in order to have more time for an emergency response when needed. All ships have to report to Ouessant Traffic when approaching the
area, and so we did as well.
The worst accident in this area happened in March 1977. Everybody interested
or involved in marine casualties remembers the disaster the the oil tanker "Amoco Cadiz" has suffered just here.
The "Amoco Cadiz" was underway with several 100,000 tons of crude oil from the Arabian Gulf and bound for Rotterdam. Just here, in stormy weather, the ship had a sudden engine breakdown and was no longer manoeuvreable. Rapidly the ship was drifting towards the French coast. As Ushant is anyway a dangerous corner in all respects, there is always standing a powerful ocean tug close by. As soon as the "Amoco Cadiz" reported her problems by radio, the tug began to proceed towards the scene. When arrived, the captain of the Amoco refused the assistance of this tug. The reason for was his uncertainty about the costs involved.
In order to understand better why a ship's captain may be reluctant to accept assistance in distress is the following: An emergency towage is always stipulated according the so-called "Lloyd's Open Form". The essence of this standard contract is the sentence "NO CURE - NO PAY". That means: if the salvage tug does not succeed in rescueing the ship in distress, he will not be paid at all. But if his rescue operation is successful, it will be a very big business and become extremely costly.
The value of the ship including her cargo and fuel on board will be calculated and divided into six equal parts. Three sixths are for the owner of the salvage tug, one sixth is for the tug's crew, another sixth for the tug's captain, and one sixth will be used for administrative expenses.
Back to the "Amoco Cadiz". Her captain by no means wanted to agree on a towage according "Lloyd's Open Form". He argued not to be in serious distress and required a contract on regular towage only - which is of course far cheaper. The tug disagreed and insisted on a "Lloyd's Open Form", as the ship was doubtlessly in distress. The tanker continued to drift rapidly towards the coast meanwhile.
The Captain did not want to take any responsibility, and so he tried to get support from his principals. First he contacted the subcharterers of the ship. He phoned to Chicago. Subcharteres told him to contact charteres in London. The charterers denied any responsability as well and told him this to be entirely a problem of the owner of ship (which is indeed correct). The captain phoned to his owners as well. What the shipowner told his captain is not known, but I am sailing enough years to easily imagine it.
The Captain phoned and phoned around the world - and his ship continued
drifting towards the French coast. Instead of taking care for his ship, he made irrelevant phonecalls, he hesitated, he haggled with the salvage tug as he were on an oriental bazaar. And then it was too late. The tug could no longer do anything, and the "Amoco Cadiz" crashed against the rocks of the coast of Brittany and cracked suddenly in two. 100,000 tons of crude oil were washed against the coast.
At the subsequent hearing with the ocean court the tanker's captain was sentenced guilty. Too many were his serious mistakes against any maritime rule and good seamanship. In such a situation there is never anything to hesitate and nothing is negotiable. A ship's captain has "overruling authority", i.e. he has to take every step and effort to save the live of his crew, his ship and the environment. There is no longer anybody to phone and to ask permission for, regardless the costs the operation may finally cause.
One of the questions put to the "Amoco Cadiz"'s captain was, why he did not
let go the anchors. This had at least decreased the drifting speed towards the coast and reduced the strong impact of the ship's hull on the beach. Probably the tanker would not have broken in two, then. He gave the almost unbelievable answer that he did not want to risk to loose his anchors.
Well, he saved his anchors but he lost his entire ship.
Only the lighthouse is visible from this confluence, but the lighthouse can only be seen on such a clear day as today. Looking to ESE we see the coast of Brittany far away.
The Bay of Biscay, which is called "Baie de Gascogne" by the French and
"Golfo de Vizcaya" in Spanish, is well known to every seafarer. It is a huge
bay, extending from Île d'Ouessant in France to Cabo Finisterre, the northwesternmost tip of Spain. The distance between Île d'Ouessant and Cabo Finisterre is 381 nautical miles (about 700 km), which means that with my ship I need just a little more than 24 hours to pass it..
There is hardly any other bay in the world of such a bad reputation as the
Bay of Biscay. Seamen fear it, due to the fact that predominant northwesterly strong winds and high swell make its passage almost always unpleasant to the extreme. Countless are the stories of the seamen about their experiences here. Heavy rolling up to 50° to each side, damages to the ship's structures due to
breakers over deck, loss of cargo and even crewmembers washed overboard.
I remember, shortly prior commencing my maritime career a thirty years ago,
to having talked to an old retired seaman. I was very enthusiastic and could
hardly wait to go on board for the first time. The Old Salt, however, grumbled: "Boy, you'll no longer be so enthusiastic, as soon as you have crossed the Bay of Biscay once!"
But now comes the best, and nobody believes me that: Certainly I have passed the Bay of Biscay hundreds of times, but I have never seen bad weather there! I have had storms in all corners of the world, but the Bay of Biscay has always been a friendly Sea to me. :-)
Today as well. See the Bay of Biscay on this late autumn day, where according to all statistics the weather should be already atrocious: Absolutely calm. Wind force Beaufort zero. Sea like a mirror. Having a look on the surface analysis, we see a powerful high pressure over England, extending down to Spain, which occurs only in this season when Captain Peter is passsing the Bay of Biscay. :-)