All 26 crew and one passenger were rescued after the roll-on,rolloff container ship Grande America, 56,642gt, caught fire and then sank off the French Biscay port of La Rochelle on May 12.
The ship, owned by the Grimaldi Lines, of Naples, Italy, had loaded a cargo of vehicles, containers and some general cargo at Antwerp and Hamburg for discharge at Casablanca in Morocco, Dakar, Senegal, Conakry, Guinea, the Brazilian ports of Suape, Vitoria, Santos and Paranagua, Zarate in Argentina, and Montevideo, Uruguay.
The total number of vehicles on board was 2,210, of which 1,298 were new ones originating from the major vehicle manufacturers.
She carried 365 containers of which 45 held hazardous materials, including 10 tonnes of hydrochloric acid and 70 tons of sulphuric acid. Some 247 containers were stowed on the weather deck and the remaining on the lower deck. Of the total, some 78 per cent were bound for South America and the rest for West Africa, mainly Casablanca. Thirty-four of the containers carrying hazardous cargo were stowed on the weather deck and the rest inside the ship.
The Grande America, with a crew of 26 and one passenger, had left Hamburg for Casablanca and she caught fire on the night of Mar 10-11. The Grimaldi Group said the fire had started among some of the cargo and the fire-fighting operation by the crew had to be discontinued as the fire spread and the ship had to be abandoned. The 26 crew and one passenger took to a lifeboat which smashed into heavy seas as she was launched, causing damage and was unable to make any headway.
Among the ships which answered the Grande America’s Mayday call was the Royal Navy frigate Argyll, on her way home to Plymouth at the end of a nine month deployment to the Asia-Pacific region.
Despite the difficult sea conditions, the Argyll’s seaboat was launched and was able to nudge the lifeboat against the frigate’s side, enabling the survivors to board her. Lieutenant-Commander Dave Tetchner, the frigate’s weapon engineer officer, said: “In the heavy seas, the orange lifeboat was bobbing around like a cork in a bathtub.
“The conditions were horrendous, with the vessels rolling at 30deg which made it extremely hairy getting the sailors safely on board. Royal Marines were on the ropes hauling people up.” At around 0500, the Argyll left the scene to take the 27 survivors to Brest. Lt-Cmdr Tetchner said none suffered life-threatening injurie, but some would require hospital treatment.
The fire-fighting operation, co-ordinated by the French authorities, started on the morning of Mar 11 with the tug Abeille Bourbon, 3,200gt, but that night, the operation had to be halted as the ship had developed a considerable list. The ship continued to burn.
The Grimaldi Group appointed the international salvage company Ardent, and during the night of Mar 11, the anchor handling supply ship Union Lynx, 2,556gt, left Vigo, in northern Spain, for the scene to monitor any spill of the ship’s fuel and to organise the recovery of any floating containers. She carried a 10-man salvage team and arrived around 2000 on Mar 12.