The story of the 51,000 tonne Hoegh Osaka aground on Bramble Bank in the entrance to Southampton Water made headlines around the world just as people were getting ready to go back to their offices after the Christmas and New Year break.
Four RNLI lifeboats, including Cowes RNLI, joined in a multi-agency rescue when the car carrier was purposely grounded on Bramble Bank by the Master and Pilot on 3rd January 2015 after the vessel developed a 45 degree list while making her turn around the West Bramble buoy. All crew members were safely evacuated from the vessel overnight by a Coastguard rescue helicopter and the lifeboats that were on scene. Fortunately, there was no impact on vessels transiting the Solent as the Hoegh Osaka was not lying within the shipping channel.
Hoegh Autoliners, the owners of the car carrier appointed salvage company Svitzer to develop salvage plans for review by Hugh Shaw, the Secretary of State’s Representative for Maritime Salvage & Intervention, (SOSREP). Although there was no reported pollution from the Hoegh Osaka, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency’s Counter Pollution Team was tasked to monitor the vessel. A range of other agencies were involved including ABP Southampton, the Solent Environment Group, Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA), Environment Agency, and the Marine Management Organisation, along with neighbouring local authorities.
Cowes Harbour Commission (CHC) received daily reports from the MCA Counter Pollution Team and direct from the ABP Southampton Harbour Master. CHC closely monitored the Hoegh Osaka situation and any potential pollution risk to our area of jurisdiction which extends across the northern half of the Medina estuary and out into the Solent, a highly sensitive area designated and protected for the quality of its coastal habitats. The risk of pollution was low, however, plans were put in place to protect these sensitive coastline areas in case of need. In effect, CHC’s contracted oil spill response partners Adler and Allen were placed on standby by the SOSREP as a precautionary move, fortunately at no charge to CHC as SOSREP is able to underwrite such costs.
In the event that a leak had occurred from the Hoegh Osaka, CHC would have prioritised protection of key areas as per the Cowes Harbour Oil Spill Response Plan. These key assets fall into both commercial financial assets such as marinas and also features of environmental importance such as mudflats and saltmarshes. This process would have involved the implementation of our Plan and the calling of our Tier 2 response contractors.
Due to the potential magnitude of any incident resulting from the stricken car carrier and the level of response that would have been required, Cowes Harbour’s response to a Solent spill from the Hoegh Osaka would have fallen initially under SOSREP’s remit and CHC would have worked within the overall Solent response.
The role of the SOSREP is an interesting one, created in 1999 as part of the Government’s response to Lord Donaldson of Lymington’s review of the grounding of the Sea Empress oil tanker at the entrance to Milford Haven in 1996, which spilt around 70,000 tonnes of oil (over 500,000 barrels). Appointed by the government, the SOSREP provides overall direction for salvage, intervention and prevention of marine pollution incidents involving ships or offshore installations that require a national response.
With financial backing from the government, the SOSREP is able to make quick decisions to appoint salvors, and other resources such as oil spill response contractors, without the potential need to agree liability and get insurance or board approval for spend. The SOSREP normally exercises operational control but is empowered to exercise intervention powers to whatever extent is required in the public interest and may take control of the salvage operation by issuing directions.
Back to the story of the grounded Hoegh Osaka on Bramble Bank, which surprised salvors by self-floating during the high tide on 7th January and was subsequently towed to a holding position a mile to the east at the Alpha Anchorage, southeast of the Bramble Bank.
The ensuing salvage operation was at times hampered by bad weather and strong winds which delayed progress, but by 21st January work on the vessel had significantly reduced the list. All water had been removed from the car decks and ballast operations further reduced the list enabling the Marine Accident Investigation Branch to board the ship.
On the afternoon of Thursday, 22nd January, assisted by four tugs, the salvor, two pilots and the ship’s Master, the Hoegh Osaka was safely delivered back to a berth at Southampton Port, 19 days after the vessel’s dramatic grounding on Bramble Bank. Once responsibility for the ship is safely transferred back to the owners, SOSREP will have no further involvement.
The “extraordinary dedication and courage” of the salvage crews and the “skill and professionalism” of all parties involved in the rescue and salvage operations has been praised by Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin and the SOSREP, Hugh Shaw. The Environment Agency has confirmed no pollution occurred although contingency plans had been in place.
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