The shipwrecked Tricolor could continue to be an obstacle in the world’s busiest shipping lane for months to come, the French Navy said today.
Since December 14, two ships have got stuck on the submerged car carrier in the English Channel, despite efforts by authorities to alert marine traffic to the danger.
Last night, the 22-year-old Turkish-registered Vicky, carrying 70,000 tonnes of highly flammable kerosene, struck the wreck, which lies off the French coast.
As an emergency operation was launched after the collision, maritime union bosses said it “beggared belief” that another such crash had happened.
The French warship Flammant, at the scene, had sent a warning, and five buoys, one with a radar signal, marked the spot where the Tricolor lies with its cargo of £30 million worth of luxury cars, Commander Hunter Rouselle said today.
He said: “We do not understand how it is possible. We say by radio, by written message, there is a wreck at that point. This information has also been provided to all ships by specialist services. We have five buoys around the wreck. We have every day one or two ships around the wreck to prevent accidents and really it is difficult to imagine a better way.
“It is our main concern because two ships have collided with the Tricolor but every day we have one or two near misses. For example, yesterday morning a ship was about to collide with the Tricolor so we are really in trouble. It is quite astonishing.”
He said it was possible that the problems with the submerged ship could be put down to human error by officers on passing vessels.
The French Navy are currently trying to track down the owner of the Vicky.
Commander Rousselle, who is based at Cherbourg, reckoned that to raise the Tricolor, a salvage firm would need two weeks of good weather so it could be April or May before it is removed.
None of the 24 crew on board the Vicky, a 243 metre-long, 43,000 tonne tanker which was sailing from Antwerp in Belgium to New York, was believed to have been injured in the collision with the Tricolor, which contains 2,862 BMWs, Volvos and Saabs.
The ship became stuck on the Tricolor but later came free with the rising tide.
Dover Coastguards said today the Vicky had anchored in Belgian waters to survey any damage.
Early reports suggest no kerosene had leaked from the hull, coastguards said.
Last night the maritime union Numast said “Russian roulette” was being played with shipping safety in the Channel.
Union spokesman Andrew Linington said he was “appalled” to hear of the latest accident. “About 90% of accidents like this are the result of the human factor,” he said.
“People are the key to shipping safety and it’s time attention was drawn to the people on board ships and the conditions they work under.
“There is a constant drive to reduce crewing levels and people can be working 80 to 90 hours a week on busy waterways like these.
“Things like this should not be happening but they are not isolated incidents.
“We know that the area had been buoyed off, and there had been a guard ship in place. We would hope an investigation would look at all the circumstances and whether these precautions remained in place.
“It certainly beggars belief that it can happen – any ships heading for this area should have had a passage plan drawn up, and should have received navigational warnings about the danger.
“On every level, this is an accident that couldn’t happen – but to many people it will not come as a surprise, because there is Russian roulette being played with shipping safety around the Channel.”
Dover Coastguard said French crews were monitoring the Vicky, after the collision at 7.30pm last night. The master of the stricken ship said he did not think the crew members needed to be taken off the vessel, which was listing 10 degrees to port.
Three tug boats, one of them English, and a warship from the French navy, were on standby nearby last night.
The Dover Coastguard spokeswoman said that despite hourly warnings to ships in the Channel about the submerged Tricolor, the ultimate responsibility always lay with the master of any vessel.
She said: “We have conducted VHF radio broadcasts warning of the wreck of the Tricolor every hour, as have the French authorities. The information has been out there. It is for any subsequent investigation to say what happened in this case.”
Mark Clark, spokesman for the Maritime Coastguard Agency, said: “It just emphasises how busy this stretch of water is. There’s four to five hundred ship movements through it per day.”
He added: “It will be up to the French authorities to take forward any investigation into why this has happened yet again.”
The Vicky, built in 1981, is a single-hulled, double bottomed vessel – meaning it has an extra layer of metal around the base of the hull.
The Norwegian Tricolor sank after colliding with the Bahamas-registered container ship Kariba in thick fog.
Her 24 crew scrambled into lifeboats as the 50,000-tonne, 200-metre ship went down within 90 minutes.
The wreck of the Tricolor was hit by the Nicola, a 3,000-tonne ship registered in the Dutch Antilles, on December 16.