Local heroes save stranded bulk carrier

'St Piran' battling surf to connect to the stern with 'Percuil' behind (Photo: Graeme Ewens)
'St Piran' battling surf to connect to the stern with 'Percuil' behind (Photo: Graeme Ewens)
'Sarah Grey' moving inside the stranded vessel (Photo: Graeme Ewens)
'Sarah Grey' moving inside the stranded vessel (Photo: Graeme Ewens)
The freed vessel towed back to the anchorage (Photo: Graeme Ewens)
The freed vessel towed back to the anchorage (Photo: Graeme Ewens)

The argument for reinstating Emergency Towing Vessels around the UK coast was raised again on December 18, when a Russian bulk carrier ran aground in Cornwall, writes Graeme Ewens.

Severe weather with a southerly force 8 wind, gusting 60mph, caused the 180m Kuzma Minin (1980/16257gt/23169 dwt) to drag anchor and it grounded 100m from Gyllingvase Beach, Falmouth, with its bow swivelling on rocks and the stern bouncing on the sand in a 10ft swell. The unladen ice-classed vessel was in danger of serious damage and possible total loss, with the potential risk of a fuel spill.

The successful operation to free the vessel was due to the rapid and heroic efforts of local mariners, who frequently work together. Maritime contractors and operators SeaWide Services (SWS) and KML combined with Falmouth pilots, Falmouth Harbour Authority, A&P and Falmouth and Fowey harbour tugs. The Falmouth lifeboat and pilot vessel Arrow stood by. The ship's crew of 18 were understood to be in no immediate danger.

Brendan Rowe, MD of SWS first noticed the ship was aground when he made a routine AIS check at around 5am. After a visual sighting he notified Falmouth Coastguard, then contacted Diccon Rogers MD of KML. Mr Rogers mobilised his team, with salvage equipment, heavy anchors and ground tackle at his Falmouth Wharves base. The two men then deployed the KML 10-metre RIB with two SWS crew and sped to the casualty. Mr Rowe boarded the ship by pilot ladder from the RIB after a hazardous approach through the surf. Falmouth pilot Tristan Gurd, who calmly managed the operation, was dropped onto the deck by Coastguard helicopter along with a CG winchman.

Diccon Rogers and the RIB crew then delivered messenger ropes from the ship to local harbour tugs, with the 21.5 ton bollard pull (tpb) St Piran the first to connect to the ship's stern. Rocket lines were not reaching their target and the powerful RIB, driven by twin 200hp engines, spent the next five hours transferring rope from various vessels in heavy breaking seas, strong wind and torrential rain.

St Piran kept the stern away from the shore and harbour tugs Ankorva (18.5tbp) and Percuil (15tbp) were eventually connected forward and midships but their tow lines kept breaking. These small tugs are not salvage vessels but performed bravely in the breaking surf.

KML's multicat/tug Sarah Grey (17tbp) then went inshore of the ship to help keep it off the beach but when that proved too dangerous it moved to the bow. By then the tug Cannis (32tbp) had been despatched from Fowey, two hours away.

Mr Rowe stated the Russian crew were 'disheartened and not very enthusiastic' to help him connect the lines to the ship's bollards and mooring bits, with the danger of ropes snapping and rebounding onto the ship. The sound of breaking tow ropes was heard clearly on the shore, where sightseers had gathered.

The Cannis arrived just after High Water and connected to the bow. The pilot had started the ship's main engine, attempting to swivel the ice bow off the reef and at around 13.30 it was 'slowly moving', with all tugs pulling at full power. By 14.00 the ship was under tow to the anchorage to await underwater survey.

Mr Rogers said “I’m pleased that the combined marine resources of Falmouth were able to deliver an effective salvage of Kuzma Minin. It was a great team effort. By responding so quickly, we were able both to save the ship and prevent a major environmental spill.”

In a social media post, Russian ambassador to the UK Alexander Yakovenko expressed his thanks to the MCA for its prompt response and its goodwill.

However, Murmansk Shipping Company, operator of the Kuzma Minin, blamed "unsafe shipping conditions" in UK waters for the grounding. "The ship got caught on some sort of chain that was on the bottom of the strait," alleged director Ildar Neverov, on RIA Novosti. “We will clearly state our position on the fact that the conditions for safe navigation in this area have not been created [and] we will definitely look at recovery of damages.”

The Kuzma Minin had recently left Terneuzen after a 71-day detention over serious defects. It has also been reported that the crew had not been paid for some time.

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