Storm force 10 New Year’s Eve tow

'Pilsum' entering Poole
'Pilsum' entering Poole (Photo: Griffin Towage)
'Kingston' secured alongside 'Pilsum' the day after the rescue (Photo: Griffin Towage)
'Kingston' secured alongside 'Pilsum' the day after the rescue (Photo: Griffin Towage)
Industry Database

“I am afraid this is going to be one of those ‘spoil your day’ phone calls.” That call from a UK broker to a UK-based tug owner on New Year’s Eve was to herald a dramatic rescue tow carried out in a force 10 storm.

The debate surrounding Emergency Towing Vessel (ETV) provision in the UK occasionally makes the news and a phrase often used in the debate is ‘tugs of opportunity’. This refers to tugs being at the right place at the right time in emergencies, a solution that can be something of a lottery and an argument for those campaigning for government-sponsored back-up in the form of an ETV.

For Poole-based Griffin Towage and its small but sturdy 55-year old tug Kingston an opportunity has presented itself reminding us that circumstances can prevail when a tug of opportunity is the only source of succour to prevent disaster, also a reminder that we must not always consider tugs built in another era being past it and of little practical use.

The call to Richard Balfry of Griffin’s tug charter section came on the morning of New Year’s Eve from a UK broker acting for a German insurance underwriter. He stated that the 81m general cargo vessel Pilsum was disabled and adrift with a full crew on board off Portland Bill on the UK south coast and asked if they had a tug available for a rescue. Mr Balfry’s immediate answer was yes but he pointed out that there was already a full gale blowing, forecast to increase, plus it was New Year’s Eve and the crews were on leave.

Operations manager Damian Lockie consulted Griffin Towage owner Jon Evelegh and after confirming the regular officers could not be brought to Poole in time they agreed that a management team manning its tug Kingston would be the only solution. Both are experienced tug masters and along with two other experienced crewmembers were able to form a crew for the rescue.

Kingston was completed by James Pollock of Faversham in 1962 as Sun XXIV serving as a shiphandling tug on the Thames for many years after which it had a variety of new roles before joining Griffin’s fleet in 2001. The new owner committed to major investment including increasing its manoeuvrability and bollard pull to 23t, a new lease of life beckoned for this workhorse.

Later the same afternoon and after preparing the towing gear while alongside and with the wind forecast to increase to storm force 10 Kingston sailed the short distance to the position of the Pilsum which was now dragging its anchor between Portland Bill and Swanage and drifting towards the rocky coastline. Swanage and Weymouth RNLI all-weather lifeboats had been called out and were standing by the vessel.

Mr Evelegh describes the conditions: “When we got there, the seas were horrendous, with waves as high as houses … all exacerbated by being in the middle of the overfalls off St Alban’s Head”. Mr Lockie added to the picture stating: “The worst I have ever seen, the seas were mountainous, one moment I was looking at the underside of the bulbous bow of Pilsum and with the next wave I was looking down on the ship’s deck from above.”

Connecting a tow line in the overfalls proved impossible so further preparations to the tow gear were carried out before another attempt could be made to establish a connection. It took no less than 11 attempts before the tow line was made fast just 1,500m from the shore with communication being a problem including Pilsum’s master having difficulty communicating with the crew on the foredeck due to wind noise. They of course needed to understand the process, in particular which of the various lines was the actual tow line. UK Coastguard were still concerned with the situation and had a rescue helicopter placed on standby and put anti-pollution contingency measures in place.

Judging the amount of line to pay out from Kingston while the connection was established was crucial to avoid snatching but also to avoid excess slack fouling Kingston’s propeller. While the tow was now established there was still concern as Mr Evelegh states: “I was not at all happy about towing Pilsum in these conditions with rope … I had no idea of the condition of Pilsum’s fairleads. Under the extreme tension of this tow, in these sea conditions, even a small rough edge could have chafed though the rope in minutes. At any moment there was a risk of the rope parting, leaving the casualty vessel adrift again.”

By now the New Year had arrived but with both Poole and Portland closed and no berth available at Poole for a further 24 hours both vessels anchored in the lee of Poole Bay. With time on their hands and the situation under control, Mr Evelegh (an experienced ship’s engineer) boarded the vessel to explore making repairs to the engine. The problem was established as a faulty air actuator on the fuel rack and within a couple of hours the engine was running again. Around 9am the following morning Pilsum was able to enter Poole and berth under its own power escorted by the Kingston.

The call from the broker did therefore in a way ‘spoil the day’ for those involved with their missing the New Year’s Eve festivities but such is the nature of the business. For Pilsum’s owners and underwriters the outcome would have been a relief and it should be remembered that this small but capable tug and its crew had indeed used their ‘best endeavours’ to save not only the ship but possibly the lives of the crew on board.

By Peter Barker

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