On the morning of December 11th, the tanker 37,283 dwt Erika,
fully loaded with heavy fuel oil proceeding South off the coast
of Britanny developed a crack in the side shell structure,
cargo was leaking,
and requested a port of refuge from the French.
At the time, the weather was very bad with gale force winds from the west.
Over the next 24 hours the fracture extended upward to the main deck
and then across the main deck.
At this point the ship was doomed.
At 0610 on the 12th, the Erika set out a distress signal
saying she was flooding.
The French rescue services mobilized.
However, the French helicopters with a 5 man capacity were too small
for the job, and British Sea King helicopters were brought in.
At this point winds were gusting to 55 knots.
At 0810, the rescue helicopter reported
that the ship had broken in two.
Probably about 10,000 tons were spilled at this time.
The crew was rescued off the stern.
The bow floated vertically bow up and had near zero drift.
However, the stern was drifting toward the shore at 3 knots.
By heroic efforts, the crew of the rescue tug Abeille Flandre
was able to get the stern under tow.
This was accomplished about 1440,
with winds from the west at 45-55 knots, 7/8 m seas.
The fact that the Erika was equipped with an emergency towing system
made this remarkable feat possible.
The volunteers that were helicoptered to the stern
remarked that the ship looked well-maintained on their return.
The Abeille Flandre was able to slow the drift toward the coast
and the next morning, with the weather getting somewhat better,
started towing the stern slowly westward.
However, on the morning of the 13th, the tug noticed
the stern was taking a small list to port,
and the spillage had stopped.
Later in the morning the stern became more and more vertical
and at 1450 in the afternoon, the stern sank.
The spill generated investigations by RINA,
the ship's classification society,
the flag state Malta,
and by the French investigative agency,
Bureau d'Enquetes sur les Accidents en Mer,
The flag state report, Malta Marine Authority, October 2000 is useless.
It offers a melange of possibilities.
"The loss was the result of several
factors acting concurrently or occurring simultaneously
... The most likely reasons for the loss were
corrosion, cracking and local failure,
vulnerabilities in the design of the ship, and the
prevailing sea conditions. ...
In 1998 the tanker underwent repairs at the Bijela shipyard
in Montenegro. ... The quality of the Bijela
repairs could have contributed to the initial
local failure, leading to the final collapse ... The
ship's managers were in attendance when these repairs
were carried out, yet they failed to identify
and/or address areas of significant local
corrosion, nor did they monitor the repairs correctly."
The Italian Classification society, of course,
washes its hands and tries to blame the crew.
In December 2000,
RINA stated that the last special survey in 1998
did not give evidence of accelerated corrosion in the ballast tanks.
Hull-thickness measurements were taken.
During the 18 months that then passed
until the accident RINA did not receive any information about
problems and the vessel passed several oil company vetting surveys
and two port state controls.
"The results of the RINA internal technical investigation
indicate that the Erika was presumably lost because an
initial crack in the low part of the hull below the water line was
misjudged and mishandled allowing it to develop until the hull break-upnt
The ship was not lost because of an overall hull girder collapse
but because she suffered a progressive structural failure.
The hypothesis of the initial crack below
the water line, ... , explains the sequence of events as reported
by the Master and entered in the Chief Officer's logbook, and it
is also confirmed by the preliminary findings of ROV
From calculations, it is evident that the
ship was designed to stay afloat with one tank open to the sea and
that the longitudinal hull girder strength was sufficient to
withstand the loads both on departure from Dunkirk, during the
voyage and in the course of the casualty.
The sequence of events would not explain an
overall hull girder collapse as cause of the loss having regard to
the fact that the casualty did not develop rapidly but took more
than 18 hours. Furthermore, the videos show that the
deck was not affected by large buckling deformations until the
ultimate detachment of the fore part.
Only at that final stage did the deck structures collapse,
under the torsional
and shear forces acting on a section open to the sea on the
The break-up of the hull, therefore, was not
the cause of the loss but rather the consequence of the initial
crack and the lack of response to it."
The French investigation makes it clear
that the RINA report is a fraudulent whitewash
willfully ignoring all kinds of facts, such as the
Master's midnight message, that reads in part
Short while ago there was an internal leak
from 3 Center to 3 starboard and so vessel listed heavily.
Now have equalized 2 port and 2 starboard tanks so list is corrected.
Have also seen cracks develop on the maindeck plating above 2 starboard.
However hull plating seems to be intact.
Have altered course toward Donges
as it is the safest course to avoid shipping seas
as it is very bad weather.
Also have internal transferred cargo from 1 starboard tank cargo
to 1 center tank to lower the level if crack develops further.
Meanwhile keeping a watch.
RINA's suggestion that the crew mishandled a minor crack
is insufferable nonsense.
RINA is a second/third tier classification society,
the refuge of lousy owners when they know
that they can't get the ship past
even the understanding over-sight of ABS, LR, or DNV.
Owners don't like to use these second tier Class societies
unless they have to because it increases their insurance costs.
Normally, all segregated ballast tanks are coated at build.
Uncoated segregated ballast tanks are a prescription for disaster.
However, in the late 80's and early 90's, many owners of pre-Marpol (non-segregated)
ballast tankships converted their ships to segregated ballast.
This was in response to market preference for segregated ballast ships
in order to reduce the pollution from the residual oil in the ballast from tanks
which are used for both ballast and cargo.
Under Marpol Regulation 13(G), the practice of converting cargo tanks
to ballast tanks was enshrined in law.
This meant using cargo tanks which had not been coated as ballast tanks.
It is very expensive (about $40 per square meter of tank surface)
to properly clean, blast and coat a tank that has been used for oil.
So few owners did.
At most they threw a few anodes in the new ballast tanks.
Rapid corrosion in the converted ballast tanks was inevitable.
The legal maximum for oily ballast for non-segregated tankers at the time was 15 ppm,
which had been determined to be low enough so that there would be no sheen.
The Erika would have used about 10,000 tons of non-segregated ballast per trip.
As a non-segregated ballast ship, the Erika would have discharged
less than 0.2 cubic meters of oil per trip in her ballast
or something like 2 cubic meters per year.
As it was the Erika spilled about 30,000 cubic meters.
In January, 2008, a court in Paris finally convicted,
the owner, Giuseppe Saverese, the manager Antonio Pollara, RINA,
and the charterer Total and ordered them to pay 200 million euros
in damages. The plantiffs (French government, local governments, etc)
had sought damages of one billion euros.
Total was also fined 375,000 euros, and RINA 175,000 euros.
The plantiffs argued that Total was involved
since its vetting service had approved the ship for chartering.
The Court had to use some rather tortured arguments
to get around the limits of liability specified by Marpol
and the International Convention on Civil Liability
for Oil Pullution Damage 1992 (CLC 92),
to which France is a signatory.
CLC 92 precludes civil pollution claims against the crew,
servants or agents of the owner, charterers, salvors, etc.
In short, everybody but the owner.
The flag state Malta had diplomatic immunity.
There was nothing the court could do about that.
RINA claimed it was acting for the flag state;
therfore, it also had diplomatic immunity.
This was rejected on the undeniable grounds
that RINA's actions were essentially commercial.
RINA then claimed it was acting
as a servant or agent for the owner
and therefore was protected by CLC 92.
How the court got around this is not clear.
The court found the Total Group,
not the chartering arm of Total, liable on the dubious grounds
that the Total Group had not actually chartered the ship,
therefore was not protected by the CLC,
but had vetted the ship and should have known it was unseaworthy.
Total and RINA have appealed the verdict.