The Castor Is (Finally) Empty

Friday, February 09, 2001
With the final discharge of all cargo from the damaged tanker Castor, and its pending redelivery by the salvors to its owners for repair, a 39 day saga that has involved eight nations and raised serious concerns within the maritime industry has been successfully concluded, classification society American Bureau of Shipping (ABS) reported in a release.

"It is unfortunate that political intervention into what should have been a purely technical challenge, put so many elements at risk," said Nicolas Hondos, chief executive of Athenian Sea Carriers, owners of the Castor. The unwillingness of Morocco, Spain, Algeria, Gibraltar, Greece, Tunisia and Malta to grant the vessel access to sheltered coastal waters turned the tanker into a pariah, buffeted by gale force winds while waiting sufficiently calm weather to undertake an open water, ship to ship transfer of the cargo. Many of the coastal states that denied the Castor access to their territorial waters did so from a belief that the vessel posed an unacceptable hazard, either from explosion or cargo spill. Yet independent scientific analysis of both scenarios clearly showed that the risk of an explosion was minimal and that the potential pollution threat was far worse if the vessel was to sink in deep water.

Throughout the salvage operation ABS, the classification society of record for the Castor stressed the difference between a damaged vessel and one that is substandard. "Since suffering the initial heavy weather damage this vessel has been subjected to an extreme Force 12 gale with wave heights in excess of 8 meters without any further deterioration in its structural condition," Robert D. Somerville, President of ABS, emphasized.

"Over the last 39 days it has been towed 1,000 miles across the Mediterranean, remaining intact without losing any cargo or causing any pollution. Only a remarkably robust, well maintained vessel in stout structural condition could withstand such a beating and still deliver its cargo safely," he insisted. "The facts speak for themselves," said George Tsavliris, a principal in the salvage firm Tsavliris Towage & Salvage. "The allegations regarding the condition of the vessel were completely without foundation."

"This has been one of the most challenging salvage operations our company has ever undertaken," Tsavliris added. The salvors took control of the vessel on January 2 and anticipate redelivery of the Castor to its owners on arrival in Piraeus. Tsavliris paid particular tribute to the team of salvage experts attending the vessel. "The successful completion of this operation would not have been possible without the outstanding courage, professionalism and teamwork of our salvage team who worked under the most trying conditions for more than a month."

From a technical point of view the cargo transfer should have been a straightforward operation. "Given the traditional maritime courtesy of access to a sheltered area, this incident would have been over within three days," Tsavliris said. All the parties involved in this incident are fearful that the political treatment of the Castor may become a precedent for future casualties and believe it is imperative that sensible, risk based guidelines on sheltered areas be developed at an intergovernmental level within IMO.

These must respect the rights of coastal nations but also provide adequate protection for damaged vessels, their cargoes and their crews. "IMO Secretary general William O'Neil is to be applauded for his swift response in placing this issue on the organization's future agenda," said Somerville. The incident saw a remarkable level of cooperation between the owner of the vessel, the salvors, the classification society and Cyprus, the flag state. "We worked as a team," said Tsavliris. "Without the total commitment and cooperation of all parties, it would have been impossible to successfully complete the salvage operation." ABS President Somerville agreed. "It was essential that the responsible members of this industry stand together as a forceful reminder that it can effectively and professionally take care of its problems within a self regulated environment," he said. "At ABS we are as committed to eliminating the substandard operator and the substandard ship from this industry as the most vociferous legislator. But the difference between these rogues, who form such a tiny minority within our ranks, and the responsible members of the maritime community must be emphasized. "Well found ships can suffer heavy weather damage in extreme circumstances," Somerville pointed out. "That is not an indication of a weakness within the industry's self regulating mechanism. Rather the manner in which all the parties concerned with the Castor have responded should reassure the public and concerned governments that we are their partners in seeking to protect life, property and the environment."

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