Europe Gets Seasick Over English Channel Collisions

Special to The Times

It is shipping's equivalent of the multi-car pileup, a series of collisions and close calls in the heavily trafficked lanes of the English Channel that has left European maritime officials wondering just what they have to do to keep ships from crashing into the wreck of a massive Norwegian-registered freighter.

In the two weeks since the Tricolor went down in French waters at the eastern entrance to the channel, the ship has been hit by two other vessels. The most recent collision occurred in the evening hours of New Year's Day when the Turkish-registered Vicky, bound for New York from Belgium and laden with 70,000 tons of kerosene, plowed into the Tricolor's capsized hull.

The ship's crew had somehow missed the five hard-to-miss buoys surrounding the Tricolor -- each 9 feet high and illuminated by flashing lights -- as well as the enhanced radar pings from one of them that makes the wreck visible on radar screens 18 miles away.

The Vicky also must have missed the overlapping Belgian, French and British radio warnings issued every 15 minutes about the danger posed by the Tricolor, not to mention the French naval vessel permanently stationed nearby, whose crew's own frantic radio calls to turn away went unheeded.

"I had no idea it was there," the Times of London quoted Bulent Yamac, the Vicky's master, as saying Thursday. "I saw some light buoys, but I didn't understand what it meant or why they were there." Wedged atop the sunken ship and leaking traces of kerosene, the Vicky didn't get free until the tide began to rise. It is now listing in Belgian waters, its hull cracked but the kerosene apparently secure.

"We have no idea how this happened, because they simply couldn't -- shouldn't -- miss it," said Mark Clark, a spokesman for the British Maritime and Coastguard Agency. "It is no different from driving along the [highway] and seeing warnings that a lane is going to close ahead: You edge over and give it a wide berth.

"Heaven knows what was going on on board that boat."

The 100-yard-long, 50,000-ton Tricolor, which had been en route from Belgium to Britain, should be easy enough to avoid. It went down after being rammed from behind Dec. 14 by the Bahamian-registered Kariba, a container ship that was apparently trying to overtake the freighter in heavy fog. The 20,000-ton Kariba, its bow smashed, limped back to port.

But the Tricolor toppled on its side, rolling its cargo of 2,862 cars that included BMWs, Volvos and Saabs --a $45-million cargo worth more than the $37-million ship -- and coming to rest in shallow water, where its blood-red hull still occasionally pokes above the waterline at low tide.

Two days later, it was hit by the Nicola, a 3,000-ton cargo ship registered in the Dutch Antilles. Tugs took seven hours to pull the Nicola free, and its German owners complained that French-provided information about the wreck's position had been wrong. Two days later, another ship came within 100 yards of the Tricolor before being warned off by a British coast guard airplane desperately wagging its wings.

No one has been hurt in any of the collisions, and the site is now even more clearly well-marked. But the collisions and close call prompted the British maritime union NUMAST to complain Thursday that shipowners are playing "Russian roulette" with safety in the channel. Saying the latest accident "beggared belief," NUMAST spokesman Andrew Linington said human error is almost certainly to blame for the Vicky straying onto the Tricolor.

For seamen, the accidents support their claim that shipping companies shouldn't be cutting crew sizes, or forcing those who remain to work longer hours.

But British maritime officials counter that there are only one or two collisions a year among the more than 93,500 vessels plying the 22-mile-wide channel annually in addition to ferries crisscrossing the commercial lanes.

Expressing mystification at how this latest collision occurred, Belgian police requested that the Vicky not be moved while divers examine its hull and the kerosene is taken off.

Meanwhile, the salvage work on the Tricolor continues. A Dutch company has begun drilling holes in its fuel tanks to siphon its oil. Removing the fuel is expected to take at least two weeks, after which the company can start salvaging the rest of the boat and its hundreds of luxury cars -- almost certainly sodden and ruined, experts say.

When the Vicky hit the Tricolor on Wednesday, the crane used by the company was back in a Dutch port, unloading the fuel it had removed from the wreck.

Had the crane been on site, its sheer size would have been another warning to approaching ships of the danger ahead.

"Yes, you'd think so," said Claudia van Andel of Smit Salvage. "But the way things are going out there these days, you never know."

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