Ferry salvage bill may run to millions

Stena Challenger accident: Port authorities and owners of ship wrangle over cause of beaching that left 172 stranded
The salvage bill for the Stena Challenger, which was pulled off a sandbank near Calais on Wednesday night, could reach seven figures, according to sources within the industry.

The amount which Stena will have to pay is likely to be determined finally by arbitration but yesterday a more immediate row was brewing with the port authorities over the cause of the incident, which left passengers stranded for a day on the ship.

At a press conference yesterday morning, Stena managers implied that the incident had been caused by port authority controllers who dictate movements in and out of Calais. Stena said the Challenger had been made to wait outside the entrance channel in atrocious conditions just before it ran aground.

While the company refused to discuss the cause of the accident, the comments suggest that the ship lost steerage when it slowed and was carried on to the beach by the following tide and winds of more 40 knots. The ship had to wait while the 28,000 tonne Pride of Burgundy, belonging to rival firm P&O and 10,000 tonnes heavier, made its departure.

The ferry, with 172 passengers and 73 crew, ran aground in an on-shore force eight gale about one mile from the harbour entrance. The first attempt to pull the ship off the beach at high tide failed, but the second, by a larger ocean-going tug on Wednesday night, ended the passengers' frustrating ordeal.

But Gerard Barron, a spokesman for the port authority, was adamant that the ship should have had no difficulty holding its position, even in the heavy sea conditions.

"This procedure is completely normal," he said. "It happens every day. We have 100 ships and 30 hovercraft entering and leaving but we do not have accidents every day. It is totally ridiculous. A ship like the Challenger should be able to stay in position for 24 hours." Mr Barron said he still believed that there had been some loss of power to the engine which must have caused the ferry to run aground, though he hinted that human error could have compounded the problem. "A boat or machine is never entirely responsible in these kind of cases," he said.

Stena, however, ruled out technical failure as a possible cause of the incident, although it was revealed yesterday that the Challenger missed two sailings on Tuesday while its bow doors were repaired, though this had no bearing on the drama which began at 10.30 that night.

Gareth Cooper, the company's managing director, said the captain of 20 years' experience, whom he refused to name, had not been suspended pending the outcome of the inquiry whose conclusions would take two to three weeks to emerge after logs and electronic data had been analysed and crew interviewed.

Divers inspected the ship yesterday morning and discovered no structural damage. It was being sailed to Dunkirk later in the day and was to be put in dry dock for further tests .

The negotiation over the cost of salvage, organised by the French company Les Abeilles which has a tug on permanent stand-by in the Channel on the request of the French government, is likely to last several months.

If Stena, or rather its insurers, and the salvors cannot agree, then the matter will be settled by an arbitrator, an eminent QC.

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