Overloading, possible steering failure suspected in Cap Blanc deaths

A cargo vessel that capsized while carrying road salt to the French islands of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon from Newfoundland, Canada, was overloaded and most likely suffered a steering failure, a government report said.

All four crew were killed when the 118-foot Cap Blanc rolled over Dec. 1, 2008. In June, an investigative report from France’s Office of Inquiries and Analysis of Sea Accidents said Cap Blanc sailed from Argentia, Newfoundland, with a load damaging to her stability.

The assigned freeboard mark was submerged and there was a lack of ballasting water and reduced stores, the investigators wrote. Cap Blanc was carrying 204 metric tons of de-icing salt in 160 bags. The salt load initially planned by the charterer, according to the owner, was of 210 metric tons of salt.

The owner then sent an e-mail to the provider at the end of November indicating that the vessel would load only 180 metric tons. However, on the master’s order, 160 big bags, i.e. 204 metric tons, of salt were actually loaded onto Cap Blanc’s deck Dec. 1.

The report also notes that the reported draft of 2.8 meters (9 feet, 2 inches) reported by the master is “clearly erroneous.” After studying photographs of an earlier trip with an identical salt load, investigators concluded that the displacement of the ship must be 598 metric tons, not the 566.6 metric tons which would correspond to the master’s report of 2.8 meters.

Cap Blanc is shown here in a service dock at Saint-Pierre harbor in 2004.

In the open waters of Placentia Bay, off the coast of Newfoundland, Cap Blanc encountered a southerly wind freshening progressively and a moderate swell with a rough sea state, usual in this area. At the estimated time of the capsizing the wind was gusting to 38 knots. Steering gear failure probably led the vessel to broach-to, lying abeam of wind, waves and swell.

“The loading conditions do not allow her to face this situation and she capsizes suddenly,” the report states. “The assumption of a loss of the steering capacity seems to be consistent, likely to let the vessel to broach-to. It would therefore be a causal factor of the accident.”

The port rudder was found in an almost neutral position with the port main engine control in “slow” position.

“That could match with the situation of a vessel with a steering gear failure, broaching-to due to wind and waves action (the bridge is at the fore and the wind action is to fall off), and the man on watch or the master tries to compensate … by slowing the port engine,” the report states.

The bodies of Jean-Guy Urdanabia, Thierry Duruty and Robert Marcil were recovered, while the body of fourth crewman Robert Bechet remains missing.

Michel Drouin

By Professional Mariner Staff