Shifting cargo suspected cause of sinking that takes four lives off Newfoundland

Four mariners were killed when their roll-on, roll-off cargo ship capsized in heavy weather off Newfoundland, trapping at least three of the men inside the vessel. There was no mayday call.

The 118-foot Cap Blanc was transporting bags of road salt from Newfoundland to the nearby French territory of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon when the disaster occurred. Investigators said the cargo may have shifted catastrophically, and they will focus their probe on how it was loaded and secured.

Cap Blanc received the cargo Dec. 1, 2008, at Argentia, Newfoundland, and got underway in Placentia Bay for the 12-hour voyage to its homeport in Saint-Pierre and Miquelon.

The crew soon encountered 10-foot waves and 30- to 40-mph winds, according to the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre at Halifax. In the face of the bad weather, the captain reported slowing the ship down to 4 knots.

Cap Blanc then failed to provide a scheduled radio update during the evening of Dec. 1. Searchers located the capsized ship at about 1000 the next day. There was never a mayday call or distress signal, said Maj. Denis McGuire, officer in charge of the Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) boat Murray was the first vessel to reach the location of the accident at the mouth of Placentia Bay, 8 nautical miles south of Marystown. McGuire said the RCMP saw no sign of the four mariners. The police crew banged on the upside-down hull in an attempt to elicit a response.

“It was located capsized. It was totally overturned," McGuire said. The RCMP crew “put a hammer on a rope and was able to toss it into the side of the hull, and they heard noises from inside, but there is no way to know what the noises were."

Sgt. Wayne Newell, an RCMP spokesman in Newfoundland, confirmed that the Murray crew believed they were interacting with at least one Cap Blanc crewman who was still alive. Cap Blanc sank in the afternoon of Dec. 2, before divers could penetrate the hull.

“Our people that were on the vessel did feel that they were communicating through banging or tapping noises from inside, but later there were other people who thought it was just creaking noises from inside the hull," Newell said.

McGuire said rescuers found an empty life raft from Cap Blanc near the capsized ship. The vessel sank in 425 to 440 feet of water.

Three weeks later, divers recovered the bodies of three of the four missing crew from inside the wreck.

They were the captain, Jean-Guy Urdanabia, 47; chief mechanic Thierry Duruty, 51, and Robert Marcil, 50. Seaman Robert Bechet, 53, remained missing. All four men were from Saint-Pierre and Miquelon.

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada said it would assist with the investigation, which was led by France’s Office of Inquiries and Analysis of Sea Accidents.

The French maritime agency’s director, Jean-Pierre Mannic, announced that investigators would probe Cap Blanc‘s stability book, the cargo loading plan for the road salt and the vessel’s past cargo-handling practices. Mannic said the inquiry would begin in January.

The vessel’s owner, Alliances SA of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, could not be reached for comment.

Dom Yanchunas

By Professional Mariner Staff