Salvors struggle to separate Med collision ships

The two vessels collided on the morning of 7 October. Credit: Maritime Prefecture of the Mediterranean
The two vessels collided on the morning of 7 October. Credit: Maritime Prefecture of the Mediterranean

French authorities on 9 October warned that efforts to separate two vessels locked together in the Mediterranean after a collision could take several days.

The maritime prefecture in Toulon said initial efforts to separate the two vessels had failed and that salvage experts would be looking at other ways of separating them over the next few days.

Ulysse, a ro-ro vessel operated by Tunisian company COTUNAV that collided with the moored container ship CSL Virginia on the morning of 7 October, tried to extricate its prow from the side of the container ship by reversing its engines.

According to the prefecture, however, this manoeuvre produced “no significant change in the situation”. Nor did a repeat of the manoeuvre with assistance from a French salvage tug and naval support vessel.

The prefecture said salvage experts were now on their way to the site to look at other ways of separating the vessels. Some have been mandated by the vessels’ owners, COTUNAV and Athens-based Cyprus Sea Lines, while the prefecture itself has called in SMIT and French navy divers and emergency teams.

In the meantime, the crews are still aboard the two ships, although 6 passengers who had been among a total of 45 people aboard Ulysse have since been airlifted off the vessel.

An oil slick, created by the release of an estimated 600 tonnes of intermediate fuel oil from the tanks of the CSL Virginia, has grown slightly from an estimated 20 km on 8 October to 25 km on 9 October.

The prefecture said it had broken up into seven segments but that, for the time being, sea conditions remained relatively calm and the wind, at an average of 20 km/h, was moderate.

Seven French and Italian anti-pollution vessels are now at the scene, all of them part of the18-strong anti-pollution network set up by the European Maritime Security Agency (EMSA).

The incident has sparked off controversy in France. French environment minister François de Rugy, who visited the scene of the accident on the evening of 8 October, told French journalists afterwards that the behaviour of Ulysse had been “totally abnormal”.

“At this stage, we cannot say what happened,” he said, “but it is clear that there was no watch at the helm of the ro-ro ship because, otherwise, the collision could have been avoided.”

The minister, who went aboard the French savage tug at the scene, said 10 m of the prow of the ro-ro vessel had penetrated the container ship.

Environmental organisation Robin des Bois claimed that CSL Virginia had been moored in a dangerous position, 28 km off the northern tip of the island of Corsica, close to a marine nature reserve and on a shipping route between Italy and Africa.

But the minister said he had no reproach to make against the vessel, which had signalled its position outside the nature reserve and had not required authorisation to anchor there since it had been outside French territorial waters.

The maritime prefecture told IHS Markit that there was no immediate danger of the oil slick making landfall since the wind and currents were currently taking it away from the coast and towards the middle of the Mediterranean ocean.

A spokesman said it was possible that the fuel oil, a mix of heavy fuel and distillates, could emulsify, with part of the emulsified substance sinking and part of it continuing to float.