No safe harbour yet for 'Sea Empress'

The chances of saving the stricken supertanker rise and fall with the wind and the waves, writes Nicholas Schoon
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The Independent Online
"If you've got a better plan, please let us know," said Michael Hyslop, general manager of Milford Haven Port Authority, responding to suggestions that the Sea Empress salvage operation might have been botched.

At first, the rescuers had hoped to keep the supertanker afloat and in position close to where she ran aground last Thursday night. When the ship snapped her anchor cable, and the tow lines to three tugs, salvage workers tried to steady her by letting in water. That failed; the vessel stayed partially afloat, moving in the big waves, winds, and tidal currents. Yesterday rescuers returned once more to try to stabilise the tanker.

Meanwhile, salvage experts have been lifted on three times and off twice as the risk of the ship going out of control, running aground and breaking up rises and falls with the wind and waves. The salvage attempt has been fraught with danger ever since the Sea Empress struck rocks at the entrance to mainland Britain's busiest tanker port, and will remain so for the rest of the week.

The ship is too deep in the water to enter the port and is listing heavily. Salvage firms have brought in more-powerful tugs but none has been strong enough to work against the force nine gales which continue to whip up the seas.

The rescue attempt involves three salvage firms (including world-leaders Smit Tak), the Government's Marine Pollution Control Unit, the Port Authority and the Coastguard. RAF and Navy rescue helicopters are on stand-by. Hundreds of people are involved, 24 hours a day, co-ordinated by the hill-top offices of the Port Authority. Many are working to clean slicked beaches and looking out for oil-covered birds.

If the Sea Empress can be kept stable then several hundred tons of equipment, including pumps, will be lifted on board using an RAF Chinook helicopter. Oil can then be pumped from tank to tank on the ship to reduce the leakage of crude and correct her heavy list. Only then can a smaller tanker, the Star Bergen, be moved alongside to take off some 30,000 tons of oil to allow the Sea Empress to rise in the water and enter the sheltered waters of the Haven. The transfer of oil, however, can only be done in calmer weather and will take at least two days.

Marine experts suggest that it would have been impossible to take off the oil before the storm broke on Saturday. Walter Welch, director of marine services at the Chamber of Shipping said: "The worst of all possible worlds would have been to start taking the oil off and then have to stop because of the storm. You can't just roll up the pipes and leave. It's a very tricky operation."

Bringing another tanker alongside the stricken vessel was, he stressed, "an extremely delicate operation, even in good weather. There's a lot of risk involved".

But the option of towing the Sea Empress out to the deep sea was not viable, he said. "You would have to take it several hundred miles away from shore to ensure there was no pollution and the ship might break up in that time." It was better, he added, to leave the ship where she was to transfer the oil because conditions are much rougher in the open sea. "If you are trying to lighten the load, you need some shelter."