Seaway tanker grounds after steering failure; water raised to free it

The loaded tanker Chem Norma ran aground in the St. Lawrence River following an unspecified steering system failure and remained stuck for five days.

The 475-foot ship was sailing at 10 knots when crew lost control and grounded in Canadian waters near Morrisburg, Ontario, said Francois Dumont, a senior regional investigator for the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB). The ship ran bow-first into soft clay outside the channel at about 0415 on May 29.

The ship’s hull remained intact and there was no pollution. No one on board was injured, and traffic on the waterway was not affected.

“It was totally out of their control,” Dumont said of the Chem Norma crew. “We know it took less than one minute from when they realized something was wrong to when the vessel ran aground. They didn’t have time to react — to drop anchor or reverse the main engine.”

TSB investigators boarded the ship in Port Weller, Ontario, but could not determine the cause of the steering malfunction. After repairs were made, the TSB sent steering components to a lab in Ottawa to look for answers.

Chem Norma, a 9-year-old ship registered in the Marshall Islands, was inbound for Sarnia, Ontario, carrying 11 tons of alkylate — a refined oil product similar to gasoline — when it ran aground.

A pilot from the Great Lakes Pilotage Authority was conning the ship when the failure occurred, said Robert Lemire, the organization’s chief executive officer. He declined to comment further on the incident and referred other questions to the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corp. (SLSMC).

Three tugboats from Quebec City-based Ocean Group — Ocean Tundra, Ocean K. Rusby and Ocean Pierre Julien — responded to the grounding. The tugs spent five days trying to dislodge the ship.

St. Lawrence Seaway officials sought help from the International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board to help free Chem Norma. The board, comprised of U.S. and Canadian officials, regulates water levels in the critical waterway through a series of dams.

“Given the tanker’s location off Morrisburg, we quickly discerned that flow decreases would help raise levels there within a day or two to the point where it might make a difference to the ship’s removal,” Rob Caldwell, Canadian secretary for the board, wrote in an email.

Starting at about midnight on June 3, following approval by board members and other stakeholders, the agency reduced flows by 16 percent in a part of the Seaway known as Lake St. Lawrence. The water level rose by nearly a foot around Morrisburg, which helped the tugs pull the ship loose at about 1600 that afternoon.

“With the ship freed, SLSMC quickly called me to facilitate a series of flow increases in order to return the flow back to a more normal value,” Caldwell said.

Dumont also cited the rising water level in the river as a critical factor in the successful refloating. “They tried for almost a week with no success, and it’s a combination of the three tugs and the raising of the water levels,” he said.

Ocean Group declined to comment on its role in the refloating. Chem Norma’s manager, ASM Maritime of Amsterdam, Netherlands, did not respond to an email inquiry about the accident.

After coming free, Chem Norma transited under its own power with tugboat escort to Port Weller, near Niagara Falls. As of early June, the vessel remained in port.

By Professional Mariner Staff