A Dark December Night
The story starts with the collision between KARIBA and TRICOLOR in the early hours of 14th December 2002. The evening before, TRICOLOR, a 49,792 GT, 1987-built car-carrier laden with a cargo of 2,871 luxury cars, had left Zeebrugge bound for Southampton, which was the last port in Europe before the Atlantic crossing to the US. The crew had routinely made the vessel ready for sea and gone to rest for the night in their cabins, except for those on watch.
The two things that seafarers probably dread the most are collisions and fire. Knowing, however, that they had duly and properly prepared the vessel for sea for the voyage to Southampton and also trusting their shipmates on watch to navigate the vessel safely through the night in the very busy English Channel, they could go to sleep and rest before arrival in the morning and another busy port stay.
Despite the crew’s efforts to prepare the vessel for sea and the officers’ attention to safe navigation in busy waters, the crew’s worst nightmare would become a reality that night and TRICOLOR was never to make it to the next port.
At about 0215 hrs everybody on board TRICOLOR was shaken by a sudden impact and a terrifying noise. Immediately following the impact the general alarm was sounded and everyone except those on the bridge hurried from their cabins to the mustering station. The third engineer in the engine room miraculously managed to evacuate through the elevator shaft and accompanied the others on deck as TRICOLOR took on a rapidly increasing port list. They managed to launch an inflatable life raft and all managed to escape the sinking vessel safely.
On the bridge the Captain, the second mate and the lookout had observed the vessel that they were about to overtake on a parallel course on their port side. Suddenly they became aware of the same vessel turning hard to starboard and witnessed the vessel abeam on their port side steaming right at TRICOLOR. The Captain immediately put the rudder hard to starboard but there was no way to avoid the other vessel and KARIBA hit TRICOLOR with its bow on TRICOLOR’s port side just aft of the bridge.
The men on the bridge of TRICOLOR immediately sounded the general alarm to alert their resting companions and they also managed to send out distress signals on the radio before the heavy list to port forced them off the bridge and into the cold sea and the dark night. Luckily they were picked up by the KARIBA’s crew, who managed to launch a life boat very quickly and initiate a search for the TRICOLOR’s crew. The crew in the life raft was picked up by the tugboat BOXER that happened to be in the vicinity. All 24 people on board TRICOLOR were rescued without any injuries other than the obviously horrific experience of suddenly finding oneself in utter danger by being forced to escape into the cold sea on a dark December night.
Danger to shipping
Because of the location of the sunken vessel, at a point where two lanes combine in the Traffic Separation Scheme (TSS) of the English Channel and the Southern part of the North Sea and the fact that she was just completely submerged, the wreck was considered as a hazard to navigation. The TSS at that location is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. In December 2002 French authorities ordered the wreck to be removed, as it was perceived to represent a danger to shipping and the environment. Two more collisions happened with TRICOLOR in the days after the sinking.
Following the sinking and due to its location in a busy point of a shipping lane (the location was on the edge of a turning-point within the TSS of the English Channel), the wreck was initially guarded by the French maritime police patrol boat P671 Glaive and HMS Anglesey (a 195 ft British Island-class patrol vessel), in addition to two salvage vessels and three wreck buoys.
Despite standard radio warnings, three guard ships, and a lighted buoy, the Dutch vessel Nicola struck the wreck the next night and had to be towed free. After this two additional patrol ships and six more buoys were installed, including one with a Racon warning transponder. However, on 1 January 2003 the loaded Turkish-registered fuel carrier Vicky struck the same wreck; she was later freed by the rising tide.
The salvage operation of the TRICOLOR was carried out by a consortium of companies under the name Combinatie Berging Tricolor (Combination for Salvaging Tricolor) that was led by the Dutch company Smit International, and took well over a year.
Starting in July 2003, the operation was declared complete on 27 October 2004. The salvage method included a carbide-encrusted cutting cable used to slice the wreck into nine sections of 3,000 tonnes each.
The cargo of 2,871 new cars – mostly from premium German and Swedish manufacturers including BMW, Volvo and SAAB – was removed from the wreck and recycled for the metal component. Most oil was removed from the ship’s tanks soon after it sank, but during the salvage there was a 540-tonne oil spill.
Here is a video of the courageous wreck removal operation of the TRICOLOR: