Brian Reyes and Nigel Lowry
THE American Bureau of Shipping yesterday accused Spain
of taking a "political, rather than subjective" view of the plight of
the stricken product tanker Castor and warned that the vessel´s time
was running out.
The US classification society categorically refuted Spanish claims that the
1977-built ship was substandard after carrying out a detailed review of
its survey history.
"Age is not the determinant of the condition of a ship," said ABS president Robert Somerville.
"It is the manner in which the ship has been managed and maintained that defines its condition.
Our records clearly show that this vessel has been conscientiously maintained by a responsible operator."
Mr Somerville, at present based at ABS´s Castor crisis centre in London,
held an urgent telephone conference at midday yesterday with the head
of Spain´s merchant shipping authority, José Luis López-Sors González.
Spanish authorities earlier this week suggested that the Castor may have had
structural weaknesses prior to the main deck cracking in severe weather
on New Year´s Eve.
Mr López-Sors has told Lloyd´s List that the ship will not be allowed to
enter Spanish waters, a position he reiterated to this newspaper
yesterday. Morocco, Gibraltar and Algeria have also banned the ship.
A spokesman for the Gibraltar government, asked if authorities on the Rock
might reconsider their position, said: "No way. It is far too dangerous."
No country seems willing to accept the ship for fear of its cargo of 29,500 tonnes of gasoline igniting.
Salvage company Tsavliris is reported to have concluded preparations for an
inerting operation to render the vessel safe, beginning "today or
tomorrow" depending on weather conditions.
The ship is currently under tow 37 miles off Cartagena in southeast Spain
But weather reports suggest that conditions may deteriorate today, which
could force the salvor to give priority to moving the casualty to a
more protected location.
ABS yesterday expressed clear frustration with the situation.
"It is unfortunate that many of the good intentions that have flowed from
the Erika disaster have led to this sort of political, rather than
subjective, assessment of a maritime casualty," Mr Somerville said.
ABS chairman Frank Iarossi added: "The owner, the flag state and ABS are
becoming increasingly concerned about this vessel´s ability to survive
a protracted diplomatic battle over the extension of one of the oldest,
most honoured maritime traditions of extending assistance to any vessel in distress.
We believe that everyone with any influence over these events must exhaust
every reasonable effort to protect the lives of the brave people
rendering salvage assistance to this vessel and to prevent the growing
possibility of a major pollution incident in the sensitive waters of
The Castor is one of three vessels built to ABS class in 1976 and 1977 by
Korea Shipbuilding and Engineering. The other two vessels were
transferred out of ABS class in the mid-1980s.
An ABS inspector who boarded the vessel after the incident said she was well maintained.
"That the vessel has survived in open water for almost two weeks following
heavy weather damage is a testament to the residual strength of the
hull and the condition of the undamaged structural components," said
chief surveyor Gus Bourneuf.
Cyprus´ maritime administration also rounded on Spanish assertions
that the ship was substandard.
"Having carefully reviewed the ship´s records, reports and other data, I can
only say that words have lost their meaning," said the island´s senior
surveyor Andreas Constantinou, of the Spanish allegations.
He added: "If at the end of the day the ship sinks, I do not think that
the authorities and the shipping community will be able to take any
pride or claim that they exhausted all reasonable efforts to avoid
burdening the Mediterranean with almost 30,000 tonnes of gasoline."
The Castor, which is entered with the North of England P and I Association,
has a clean port state control record with no detentions reported.
She has not been inspected in Spain during the past two years.
However, in 2000 six other tankers operated by Athenian Sea Carriers
were inspected by Spanish port state control in Barcelona,
Tenerife, Tarragona and Bilbao and none was detained.
(Comment:- If this ship had been hijacked by pirates in Eastern waters,
her cargo would have been almost guaranteed to have been unloaded
and "disappeared" within 24 hours!)
Athenian rallies to its standard
Nigel Lowry looks at Athenian Sea Carriers, operator of the damaged product
tanker Castor which was condemned by Spanish allegations this week as
THIS is not the first time that January has proved to be a miserable month
for Athenian Sea Carriers, the Greek shipping company which has been
sweating for the past 10 days on the fate of its damaged product tanker Castor.
In January 1999, two other Athenian-controlled tankers were hit by blasts
within a week of each other; a fact that is likely to have made the
company all the more nervous about the spectre of a spark bringing an
untimely end to the career of the Castor.
Despite not being able to boast an unblemished accident record, though,
Athenian is generally considered a reputable tanker operator and its
vessels appear to have a sound record in the eyes of their flag state,
class and port inspectors around the world.
The worse of the accidents two years ago this month saw five crew killed by
flying metal when there was an explosion on board another handysize
product carrier, Athenian Fidelity, during a voyage from New York to Venezuela.
Despite the fact that the ship left the US with a gas-free certificate, a
subsequent Cypriot investigation concluded that the condition of the 14
year-old vessel changed on reaching warmer Caribbean waters and work
being carried out by crew in chipping the deck ignited newly developed
pockets of gas in her tanks.
The investigation attributed the accident solely to crew negligence,
although Athenian has always been convinced that a gas pocket was
ignited by static electricity after the vessel sailed through a
tropical storm. This was also acknowledged by the Cypriots as a
A few days earlier, the forecastle of the 83,466 dwt Athenian Pride had
been blown off during a ship-to-ship transfer of crude oil to a VLCC
anchored off Fujairah. On that occasion, all crew members survived.
The investigation held that a spark from the anchor chain ignited cleaning
solvents in a bosun´s store. The storeroom door had been left ajar and
crew error was again identified as the primary cause of the accident.
Aside from these important blemishes, Athenian´s record appears to have been
good in recent years and its vessels generally pass port inspections
with some comfort, including surveys in Spain,
which yesterday unequivocally branded the Castor as a substandard ship.
One has to go back nearly 13 years to locate another disturbing moment in
the company´s history. This was the loss, with all crew, of the product
tanker Athenian Venture in April 1988.
The disaster triggered an unusually thorough accident investigation, with a
Cypriot surveyor spending fully two years on trying to piece together a
reliable explanation for the tragedy.
However, in that case the flag state eventually recorded
that "no conclusive evidence" could be found to explain what happened.
[In 1999], the company boosted its personnel, including the appointment
of Nick Hondos, a former American Bureau of Shipping man,
as its chief executive.
Mr Hondos has fiercely rebutted Spanish claims this week
that the Castor is "in any way substandard".