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2013-02-23

Future hazards to navigation, present hazard to Ireland

In modern Russia, boat takes you!
This is M/V Lyubov Orlova in better days. It's a formerly Russian, or strictly speaking, Soviet, small cruise ship built in 1976 for circumpolar tourism.  It has come to a bad end after spending several years rotting in place after being left derelict in 2010 at the harbour of St. John's, NL. Its crew were left unpaid for months, and apparently lived on the kindness of strangers who took to leaving food for them in the same manner as feral cats.



In one of the vague transactions emblematic of the the modern shipping industry, Orlova ended up in the hands of a Canadian who apparently wanted to sell it for scrapping in the Dominican Republic. One wonders why it was thought a good idea to clap on an apparently inadequate towline (which parted twice) to an apparently inadequate tug in a clearly unsuitable weather window...in winter.

Imagine that as a yacht club's workshop.


Nor is this a particularly rare thing in Canadian waters. A freshly refitted destroyer, HMCS Athabaskan, broke a tow line in December 2012, narrowly avoiding an expensive fate.

Frigate, I'm upsizing the line

A year earlier, the Great Lakes bulk carrier M/V Miner broke its towline en route to a scrapyard in Turkey. Again, heavy weather was involved and its hulk still decorates the coast of Scatarie Island, which, given its position, is unsurprisingly known for a long history of eating ships.

Not the artificial reef they requested

As is predictable in these cases, there's legal and fiscal issues surrounding the salvage of Miner, which must be done in place, as she's not budging off that beach now. Timing is ever an issue in such matters, as ship-breaking is best done when the equally predictable gales and snowstorms of the Maritime region set in, and this year, they are coming every three or four days.

The commonality so far are the words "predictable" and "unsurprising". Weather windows are no longer divined by augury; experienced seamen generally can predict three or four days of suitable weather. And I understand that towing the dead weight of a pooched ship is a hazardous business, even under ideal conditions. It will never likely be easy, straightforward or safe. That's why the laws of salvage set down centuries ago remain largely unchanged: the salvor assumes the risk and the owner provides the award. Nonetheless, the phrase "tempting fate" alternates with "finding a plausible excuse for losing a ship" in this, and other, cases.

History demonstrates, and current events confirm, that governments, ship owners and other interested parties can't wait, in general, to abrogate responsibility for abandoned and derelicted ships. The preceding link may be the sole instance of me quoting my socialist MP on anything, never mind a nautical matter. But her observations are trenchant, and clearly cut across party lines.

The phrase "follow the money" has, as is so often the case, application here. While the titular owner of Orlova holds out a frankly suspect faint hope that Irish salvors will somehow corral his vessel before it potentially casts a shadow across one of my favourite Irish seaside pubs, it's considered unworthy of the attempt. Who is responsible for a worthless ship adrift? In theory, the owner; in practice, nobody. It seems we are able to find such vessels, just as we are able to find Afghanistani wedding parties, but lack the will to do much beyond buck-passing.
That'll buff out, I'm sure.
It's not adrift, yet, but I can come up with an example local to me. Because of the conflicts between local by-laws, maritime law and the bad PR associated with making a nice old sailor homeless, the saga of M/S Jadran, which includes a stab at charity, will continue until the nearly inevitable suspicious fire to the waterline occurs.
Not so much swimming in gravy as in red ink, unpaid taxes and utilities.

Shipping, never a particularly clean business, has become increasingly sketchy. The phrase "regulatory vacuum" comes to mind when we consider the impunity with which ships change hands via shell companies set up in little countries with poor records of, well, pretty well everything. From illegal ballast pumping (and not just from rusty tankers) to illegal fuel spilling to illegal fishing alleged to have sparked the rise of Somali piracy, the business of ships is coming to have all the business integrity of a snakehead-run rub 'n' tug.

Nor is the danger restricted to near-shore. The Orlova had a chance of whacking an oil platform, and luckily, did not, as one can imagine the dents an ice-strengthened 90 metre vessel in a typical six-metre sea would leave. Non-trivial ones, I would suggest.
Both good example and horrible warning.
A commonality between commercial shipping crew and cruisers is that we are both strongly encouraged to keep watch via eyeballs, radar, AIS, for hazards to navigation (anything from a large branch in the water to, say, a drifting icebreaker). Obviously, even charted reefs and rocks are clear hazards, as are too-close approaches to land (see report and conclusions here). We already face keeping watch for debris of various sizes, sleeping whales and awash containers, but should we factor in abadoned ships?
This could totally work.
One wonders if the shifting economics of world shipping will send some cast-off, too worthless to scrap "big 'un" into our path in the future. There's a lot of ships out there: the IMO etimates over 100,000 ships carrying some sort of cargo at 100 tonnes and over. Of course,  they wear out regularly enough to have created an entire economy devoted to their cheap-ass and dangerous recycling.

At least it's safely beached (if unsafely being broken up) and is not lurching around in a Gulf Stream storm.

The odds of all of them being disposed of in a safe and responsbile manner are therefore probably similar to the odds every one reading this sentence has never chucked a dead AA battery into the regular trash rather than run it down to the special recycling depot, the address of which we've all memorized.
Cross-check against prevailing currents for best results

I couldn't wrap up this admittedly speculative (or predictive) entry on nav hazards to come without discussing the human tolla  poorly regulated shipping industry extracts from its workforce. Not only are most of the world's mariners drawn from poorer countries, but, like the Orlova's crew, they are frequently abandoned when the ships change hands or shady operators want to dump the ship, or just run it to the point of crumbling into a pollution hazard. Or the hapless crews are just told to quit starving and get back to work. Maybe they could stop begging for airfare home, while they are at it.

Needs a touch-up: Note the flag of convenience. It's Bolivian, a country without a coastline.

Merchant shipping has never been entirely on the level. The margins can be very thin, and fattening them up is the main reason for the creation of flags of convenience and the preponderance of Third World crews, who, whatever their other qualities, will work for far less wages than Westerners and may or may not be up to scratch with international safety conventions or levels of seamanship. The seamen in question are from a socially crippled dictatorship. Their country is unlikely to give a damn about them or their fates. So once we've dealt (or not dealt) with a rotting or adrift hulk left in one of our harbours, we have to deal with the crew. Fair enough: "Rendering aid" is a precept of seamanship. Whether it becomes an institutionalized "cost of doing shipping business" and whether we on passage will be keeping our eyes and radars peeled for football-field-sized wrecks too far gone to pull onto Third World beaches full of little fellows with hammers and chisels...remains to be seen.



UPDATE 13.05.27: The Orlova has officially gone missing. So for those of you trying to "lose" things, take heart. Well into the 21st century, it's still possible to lose track of 250 feet of ship with very little effort.

Not necessarily diseased-ridden cannibal monsters in this photo, but soon, soon...


UPDATE 14.01.14: The Orlova has apparently become host to an army of cannibal rats. Or so sez The Daily Fail, the British fish wrapper that makes Faux News nearly credible.

UPDATE 14.01.26:  Fond as I personally am of the term "Canadian cannibal rats" as a potential band name, there's some doubt that the Orlova is even still afloat. And here. And here. Not to mention here.
But the fact that the derelict Russian ship is very likely ornamenting the mid-Atlantic ridge hasn't stopped even reputable British papers, tongues perhaps firmly in cheek, from listing how one can survive the Orlova apocalypse.



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