The Bay of Biscay between France and Spain is notorious among sailors. Gales and storms compound the effects of the big waves that roll in from the Atlantic Ocean. Lose power here and you run a real risk of the seas playing havoc with the ship – shifting cargo, capsizing or possibly sinking – and the dangers for rescue teams are extreme, particularly during the autumn and winter seasons.
This was the situation faced by the Modern Express on 26 January 2016. The ship, a car carrier, was en-route to Le Havre, France, when she lost propulsion and she turned broadside to the storm. A sitting duck. A Spanish coastguard helicopter lifted off the crew. But the vessel itself, drifting towards the French coast, was in ever-growing danger as it was rolling between 30 and 70 degrees.
The fear was that she would sink, her bunkers causing a spill, or be driven aground by the wind and current near the seaside resort of Biarritz. It was vital to get her under control. A team of dedicated salvage experts of SMIT Salvage was on the scene within 24 hours and was able to prevent an environmental disaster from taking place.
Understanding the extreme conditions they would face, the 10-man SMIT team chartered two powerful tugs and secured help from the French Navy, which attended the scene with a frigate fitted out with two helicopters. After being lowered onto the listing ship’s deck, the team faced a challenging climb along the accommodation area, down to the relevant deck to reach her bow. There, they would have to maneuver and secure the tow line amid the wind, rain and heavy seas. Everything being well, the tugs would then turn the Modern Express into the wind, reducing the risk of her capsizing, and tow her to a suitable refuge port.
The initial attempt to get a line to one of the tugs failed. Despite seas running between four and five meters, a Lynx helicopter managed to lower a four-man team onto the ship, who then made it to the bow. Unfortunately, the rigging of the wire failed due to the prevailing circumstances and the rigidity of the eye of the steel wire.
The ship, which had got into trouble earlier that week, continued closing in on the French coast. The SMIT team undertook another attempt to board the ship the next day, but the conditions were even worse.
Unfortunately, the weather deteriorated further and no further attempts could be safely made. The French authorities warned that the Modern Express could run aground if a further attempt to connect up to the ship should fail. In the end, the ship was just 50 nautical miles from Arcachon, near Bordeaux. Known for its oyster grounds, Arcachon is also famous for having Europe’s largest sand dune, the Dune de Pilat.
The breakthrough came after the weekend. With better weather, the SMIT team went back for another go. After again being helicoptered out and climbing to the bow, they managed to connect the line to one of the tugs.
With the team clear of the ship, the tug managed to turn the Modern Express around and start towing her out to sea. She had been just 26 nautical miles from land. But the challenge wasn’t over yet – the Modern Express still had to be secured and righted.
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The ship was towed into Bilbao two days later. There, another challenge awaited: how to keep the vessel, with a 51-degree list, from turning over at her berth. The problem was that the severity of the list meant that all the lines securing her had to be under the same amount of constant tension. As the ship was unloaded, this tension would have to be constantly adjusted. SMIT therefore asked ShoreTension to mobilize its ShoreTension system to securely moor the Modern Express.
Watch the impressive video of this spectacular salvage operation: