Sea-Land Express, a 32,926-dwt containership managed by U.S. Ship Management of Charlotte, N.C., grounded about 600 feet off Sunset Beach in Table Bay, near Cape Town on Aug. 19 at about 0655 local time during a severe gale. Sea-Land Express was chartered by Maersk Line Ltd.
The vessel, built in 1980, came from Durban, South Africa, and was discharging cargo in Cape Town before heading to New York. It had moored in Cape Town during the afternoon of Aug. 18.
Of the 1,038 containers onboard, 33 contained cargo classified as hazardous material. The 843-foot-long vessel was successfully refloated on Sept. 13 by Smit Salvage South Africa. None of the cargo was damaged, and there was no pollution of the beach. The 24-man crew was not injured during the casualty.
During the storm, the ship was warned of difficulties with the anchor. An operator at Cape Town Port Control contacted the ship at about 0400 on Aug. 19, and “they informed him that he was dragging anchor,” said Capt. Bill Dernier, executive manager of operations for the South African Maritime Safety Authority. “And the officer of the watch replied they were aware she was dragging and they were taking steps,” Dernier said. “They didn’t give any order to move her anchor; they informed the ship that she was dragging.”
Port Control gave Sea-Land Express a second warning at about 0600, said Dernier, who ran the South African committee formed to handle this grounding.
Clint Eisenhauer, a spokesman for U.S. Ship Management, said the company is conducting its own internal investigation of the incident and did not want to comment at this time. The ship manager hired Gallagher Marine Systems, of Alexandria, Va., as a consultant on the hazardous materials on Sea-Land Express, and a Gallagher employee was onboard for several days working with the salvors and South African officials.
Two investigators from U.S. Coast Guard Activities-Marine Inspection Office Europe were on the scene from Aug. 20 to Aug. 24. Lt. Cmdr. John Mauer, senior investigating officer in that office, said there would be no comment on the cause of the casualty until the Coast Guard has released its report.
The grounding has sparked debate in South Africa about the authority of local port state control operators over vessels in port. “There is some discussion in the shipping arena about what kind of authority a port control should exercise over a vessel entering our territory,” said Evelyn Holtzhauzen, the South African spokeswoman for U.S. Ship Management. “Does the port captain have the authority to instruct the skipper to do something with his ship? Who’s in charge, the port captain or the skipper?”
SAMSA decided not to conduct a formal investigation into the incident but is cooperating with the Coast Guard.
The grounding triggered a massive salvage operation. It was fortunate the vessel grounded in sand, because it could have broken up if there were any rocks nearby, Dernier said. “Within hours she settled herself very neatly into the sand,” he said. “It was quite amazing to see how quickly the stresses were reduced. She virtually dry-docked herself in the sand.”
A crew from Smit was onboard by the afternoon of Aug. 19 working to free Sea-Land Express from the sand. By Aug. 28, Smit had pumped 3,518 metric tons of heavy fuel oil off the vessel. The dredger HAM 316 worked throughout the operation to remove sand from around the ship.
During the salvage operation, 12 of the 33 containers with hazardous cargo were unpacked and flown off the ship using a Russian-made M18 helicopter, according to Smit. That hazardous cargo included liquid propane gas, explosives and corrosive acids. Also onboard were 50 tons of uranium oxide from the Nuclear Fuels Corp. of South Africa. The ore was headed to the United States for processing into nuclear fuel. A company official said that the uranium ore was not highly radioactive and should not be considered dangerous.
Sea-Land Express was refloated on Sept. 13 during exceptionally high spring tides. On the morning tide, the vessel was moved 886 feet out to sea. On the afternoon high tide, at about 1524, the salvage tugs John Ross, Pacific Worker and Pacific Brigand successfully freed Sea-Land Express and towed the vessel out to sea. The ship was towed to Cape Town, where the remaining cargo was unloaded. The ship was then taken to Durban for repairs.
An inspection of the ship revealed a “hand’s-length” crack in a starboard ballast tank and damage to the propeller blade and rudder head, Dernier said. “She was a strong ship,” he said.
Unidentified iron objects from a 19th-century wreck on the beach were also found lodged in the starboard bilge keel. There are 360 known wrecks along the Table Bay coast, according to a local maritime archaeologist quoted in a Cape Town newspaper.
U.S. Ship Management notified Maersk and the cargo owners that it has declared the principle of general average, which would require the other parties to share in the costs of the three-and-a-half-week-long salvage operation. No cost estimate was available at press time for the salvage work.