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Officials: Tugboat in doomed ‘ghost ship’ tow was deficient

Sep 2, 2014 03:59 PM
The tugboat Charlene Hunt tows out-of-service cruise ship Lyubov Orlova out of St. John’s Harbour. Days later, the tug lost control of the ship, which went adrift in the North Atlantic.

The Telegram/Keith Gosse

The tugboat Charlene Hunt tows out-of-service cruise ship Lyubov Orlova out of St. John’s Harbour. Days later, the tug lost control of the ship, which went adrift in the North Atlantic.

The tugboat Charlene Hunt had just reached open water southeast of Cape Race, Newfoundland, with a massive cruise ship in tow. After a 50-degree course change, the tug was traveling straight into 35-knot winds and 15-foot seas.

Conditions worsened, and in the next nine hours the vessels traveled just 15 nm. At about 1345 on Jan. 24, 2013, the towline broke and the unregistered 295-foot Lyubov Orlova went adrift.

The ship’s emergency towline failed about a week later when another vessel began towing it toward shore. This time, the old cruise ship could not be retrieved. International media reports later surfaced suggesting the vessel could slam into oil rigs or disrupt shipping lanes.

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) determined poor voyage planning that discounted the threat of bad weather and a towing arrangement that was too short and too weak for such a voyage were key factors in the initial breakaway.

“Available guidelines respecting the design and construction of towing arrangements were not followed,” the TSB report said. “The towing arrangement was inadequate for the intended voyage.”

Charlene Hunt missed an inspection prior to the accident and had serious mechanical problems in the weeks leading up to the breakaway, according to the agency’s report. The tug was built in 1962 by Equitable Equipment Co. of Madisonville, La. The report said the U.S.-flagged vessel is registered to Hunt Marine 1 LLC of Narragansett, R.I.

The Orlova saga began in March 2012 when a new owner bought the 37-year-old decommissioned cruise ship, then moored in St. John’s, Newfoundland, to sell for scrap in the Dominican Republic. The owner chartered the 2,400-hp Charlene Hunt to tow it there.

The voyage appeared doomed from the start. The tug was barely used during the preceding two years. It was inactive for nine months prior to this voyage, investigators found.

While en route from New Bedford, Mass., to St. John’s, the tug sustained two major mechanical problems, including a cooling line malfunction on Nov. 24, 2012, that led to serious flooding. The Canadian Armed Forces had to airlift two crewmembers to Halifax. The Canadian Coast Guard supplied pumps to bail out the vessel.

The tug was escorted to Halifax for repairs on Nov. 26. About a week later, after departing for St. John’s, the vessel diverted to Sydney, Nova Scotia, to fix fuel filter problems with the auxiliary generator. The tug finally arrived in St. John’s on Dec. 9.

About a month later, the crew began devising a towing arrangement that relied heavily on materials salvaged from the ship, including its anchor chain. The towline consisted of two towing bridles connected to the ship’s forward deck, the report said. The bridles passed through a pad eye down corresponding hawsepipes. From the bottom of the pipes, the bridles connected to a 1.5-inch triangular steel plate.

An 86-foot chain pennant was connected to the new 1,100-foot steel towline 1.5 inches in diameter. The report said crew encountered trouble attaching a shock line between the towline and the triangular steel plate, and it “did not become a working part of the towing arrangement.”

“The towing winch drum on board the Charlene Hunt was capable of holding 365 meters of 3.8 cm cable,” the report said. That converts to about 2,000 feet of 1.5-inch cable. “As such, the available towline length on the tug was approximately half the length recommended by GL Noble Denton and less than the IMO minimum guideline.”

The chain failed at the point where the bridles passed through the guillotine/chain stopper that secured them on the guideroller located on Orlova’s main deck, the report said.

Inspections of Charlene Hunt found numerous deficiencies before and after the breakaway. Transport Canada (TC) cleared the tug to sail from Halifax to St. John’s on Nov. 30 after determining that the deficiencies had been resolved. However, the agency requested the vessel be inspected again before leaving St. John’s with Orlova.

“TC requested that the master of the Charlene Hunt contact the TC office in St. John’s upon arrival,” the report said. “However, the master did not report his arrival to TC in St. John’s nor did TC conduct any further inspection of the Charlene Hunt prior to its departure with the tow.”

This was the relief master’s first voyage on Charlene Hunt and first voyage in the North Atlantic.

Despite forecasts calling for gale-force winds and freezing spray, the relief master believed there was a “three-day weather window” to reach Nova Scotia, the report said. Instead, conditions deteriorated further within 24 hours after leaving St. John’s.

“The relief master did not appreciate the severity of the environmental conditions to be expected for the season and the voyage area,” the report said. “The relief master was therefore unaware of whether the towing arrangement was sufficient to make the voyage safely.”

Hunt Marine 1’s website is not active. Attempts to reach the company for comment were not successful.

After Orlova broke free on Jan. 24, 2013, Charlene Hunt stayed as close to the cruise ship as possible. Attempts to retrieve the emergency towline were not successful. By 0600 on Jan. 26, the crew was having trouble staying alongside the ship.

Five hours later, Charlene Hunt began taking on water after sustaining another mechanical problem and headed for shore. It arrived at Cape Spear, Newfoundland, about 20 hours later, while Orlova continued drifting northeast toward oil platforms.

On Jan. 30, the oil supply tug Atlantic Hawk retrieved Orlova’s emergency towline and guided the vessel in a northeasterly direction for 44 hours. After Orlova was a safe distance from nearby oil platforms, Transport Canada hired the oil supply tug Maersk Challenger to tow it 250 nm back to St. John’s.

It never made it. On Feb. 2, Orlova’s emergency towline failed shortly after Challenger began sailing southeast into rough seas. Orlova’s emergency beacon continued transmitting for weeks after the final breakaway, registering up to 700 nm from St. John’s.

Uncertainty about the ship’s fate led to media reports in early 2014 describing Orlova as a “ghost ship” filled with cannibal rats. At the time, many experts suggested the ship likely foundered. Canadian investigators reached a similar conclusion.

“The Lyubov Orlova,” the report said, “is presumed sunk.”

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