Tug rescue ends ordeal at sea

Safe arrival for ferry that ran aground, but cause of accident is a mystery
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Nearly 250 passengers and crew arrived safely in Calais late last night after spending 23 hours stranded on a beached ferry just outside the entrance to port.

The 18,500-ton Stena Challenger docked at about 11pm, (local time) two hours after it was refloated at high tide when an ocean-going tug turned the ship's stern into the wind and towed it off the beach. An attempt 12 hours earlier to shift the ferry failed as the vessel was buffeted by huge waves which proved too strong for a smaller tug to pull the four- year-old ship off the sands.

There were few clues on the cause of the accident. Earlier reports that an engine failure had caused the incident were discounted by Stena leaving two possible explanations - a steering failure or a navigational error by the captain. Passengers leaving the ferry last night said they believed the accident was caused by human error.

Senior ferry company executives, aware of the public relations implications in view of growing popularity of the Channel Tunnel, spent the day frantically trying to ensure the comfort of the passengers. They were in no danger, although some grew angry at their enforced stay on the ship which was tantalisingly close to the beach.

A helicopter dropped blankets, mattresses and pillows on to the ship in case the passengers and crew had to spend a second night aboard. Several dozen mobile telephones were also sent aboard. Despite some claims that those trapped aboard had been supplied with unlimited free alcohol and food, passengers said they had only been given one free alcoholic drink each and had not been allowed to buy more.

Even though there were no casualties, the incident has reawakened the controversy over the safety of roll-on, roll-off ferries which have been involved in a series of disasters in recent years. The International Maritime Organisation is due to report in November on safety improvements which it will recommend as a result of the Estonia disaster last year in which 900 people died.

Last night, an unlikely carnival atmosphere enveloped the beach near Calais as hundreds of locals turned out to watch the rescue operation. Parents and children clambered over sand dunes on to the beach to get the best view of the bizarre spectacle of the giant ferry stuck in the sand yards from where they stood.

The ship was finally freed by one large tug, with five smaller vessels standing by, at high tide at 9pm local time, ending an ordeal which began at 10.30 on Tuesday night. The 160-metre long ferry, which can carry up to 500 passengers, had left Dover in heavy seas little more than an hour earlier with her crew of 73 and 172 travellers. The ship, with a British captain in charge, should have entered the French port along a dredged channel which can be as little as 12 metres deep at low tide.

But for some reason which may only be explained once the Department of Transport and French maritime authorities have carried out their own investigations, the Challenger was beached in the fierce north-easterly winds. Because of the ferocity of the waves which battered the port side of the ship, it was decided that the safest option was to leave the passengers on board while rescue attempts were plotted.

Ballast tanks were filled to ensure that the vessel's flat-bottomed hull remained firmly on the beach.

As daylight broke yesterday morning, the huge ship was an eerie sight, sitting almost high and dry with the lights on, but no passengers visible.

The first attempt to pull the ship off came at about 7.30am, during high tide, after a helicopter dropped lines to the ship and then to five tugs which had been positioned nearby.

However, with the severity of the conditions, only one of the towing lines was attached by the time the tide was at its highest and, even with the ship's engines on full power, it was only possible to free the stern, pulling the vessel around to sit at 90 degrees to the beach.

With that failure, Stena declared the vessel "open salvage" to encourage suitably equipped tugs to come to the area quickly to facilitate the rescue at a cost which will be fixed later by an independent arbitrator.

In the afternoon, each passenger - there was only one child aboard - was interviewed by the crew to determine how much they had been inconvenienced and discover how much compensation would be appropriate, as well as seeing if they had any other special dietary or medical needs. New videos were also dropped on to the ship to supplement the efforts of the entertainer already on the ship for the crossing.

Divers will inspect the hull for any damage today and the ship will be taken into dry dock on Friday so that the company and the marine authorities can begin their inquiries