Operation ‘OS35’: how to rescue a 40,288 ton giant stranded in the shadow of Gibraltar | Climate and environment


The real-time image of what’s left afloat OS35 It has been pinned on the screens of the Gibraltar Ports Authority office since becoming the region’s biggest maritime disaster in over a decade. Harbor master John Ghio is not contemptuous. He barely watches it out of the corner of his eye on his nearest monitor, as he details – as much as he can – on a merchant’s plan what the painstaking plan to save a 6,656-ton giant, loaded with an additional 33,632 tons of steel, will be like. You don’t want any delays, errors, or uncontrolled spills. The order for the ship’s insurance is clear: the half-sunken bulk carrier on the eastern slope of the Rock since August 29 must disappear before May 30. And he warns: “If we are not satisfied with the rescue work, we could resume these tasks at any time.”

Ghio and Gibraltar know what is at stake. In the measured balance of diplomatic relations in the strait, any event is likely to become a dry argument which, for now, has been saved thanks to large doses of collaboration and good words between Spain and the authorities of Gibraltar. Two and a half months after the disaster and after more than 331,000 liters of oil, fuel and oil removed, La Roca is now concentrating on the detailed study of the draft salvage plan for the ship’s insurance, QBE Europe SA/NV , contracted by the owner Old Stone Management Ltd., a company managed from the port of Piraeus in Greece. The document —of several hundred pages and presented on November 9— was drawn up by the company TMC Marine, will be executed through the tenderer Koole Contractors and is the one selected, in turn, by the insurer among the seven companies to those you have contacted. “We wanted them to be specialists in making this the most efficient and environmentally friendly project possible,” says Ghio, who closely followed each step taken by the trader’s manager, alongside Eric. Houtteman, Technical Operations Manager. hired by the Rock for this case.

Although closely OS35 appears to be half sunk in one piece 700 meters off Gibraltar, the truth is that the damage sustained in the event makes it impossible for the merchant vessel to leave the vicinity of Catalan Bay in its entirety. “It is impossible to bail it out as a unit. If it hadn’t broken, we could have already removed it in four days”, also details the president of the Port Authority. But the bulk carrier collapsed just two days after the accident. The hull, already damaged by the 10-meter leak caused by the collision with an LNG carrier, did not withstand the tensions between the sunken bow and the afloat stern, which the authorities had to end up sinking in a controlled manner to balance the forces. Now, in the salvage, this destruction will approximately mark the area in which the ship will be cut into two or three parts to extract it from the place.

Work on the sunken ship ‘OS35’ beached in Gibraltar.Marcos Moreno

Although the first step that rescuers will have to take will be to remove the 33,632 tons of steel bars that the 178-meter-long by 28-meter-wide merchant vessel was carrying at the time of the sinking. There are two possible destinations for the load: its recycling or its sale, depending on the state of the material after these months spent under the sea. Ghio is convinced that once this weight is released, the stern and the center can regain their lost buoyancy. The bow presents a different situation, so badly damaged that it will probably be necessary to use “buoyancy aids” or chains to hoist this piece onto another ship capable of carrying it.

The determinants are as diverse as they are complex, which is why the project was considered open to different options, to avoid surprises and last-minute decisions. The rescue team will have to face the frequent storms in the strait in winter and will not be able to section the ship near holds 2 and 5, under which are the tanks where the fuel oil was stored. For all these tasks, the insurance of the OS35 It plans to use “very specialized machines” located in different ports around the world, but with the commitment to “finish before May 30”, explains Ghio, also president of the Port Authority. Once removed from the scene, the two pieces will either end up directly as scrap in a European Union approved demolition company – if transport is viable – or they will be dismantled beforehand in the Gibraltar shipyards.

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Beyond the end date — already marked on a chronology compulsory compliance imposed by Gibraltar on insurance—the priority for Ghio is to “minimize the risk of spills”, such as those which have already affected the beaches of Gibraltar and Línea in the days following the event. And this is the most difficult challenge, knowing that “it is estimated that at least 1% of fuel oil residues will remain on the walls and the interior bars of the tanks”, according to the captain. “Even today, we continue to extract and vacuum these remains before they come out,” adds Ghio. In fact, although today the impression of the OS35 You’ve given a lot of that from those early days when it appeared surrounded by Gibraltar Port Authority and Spanish Maritime Rescue vessels, work in the area continues. In recent weeks, specialists from Resolve Marine Services – the company appointed by the bulk carrier’s insurance for this initial work – have immersed themselves inside the ship to carry out these extraction tasks, despite the fact that the iron cargo prevents them from accessing the tanks, located under the holds. In addition, they have cleaned the interior of the rooms that remain afloat of all kinds of furniture and effects that could become garbage in the event of an incident.

Work on the sunken ship 'OS35' beached in Gibraltar.
Work on the sunken ship ‘OS35’ beached in Gibraltar.Marcos Moreno

The port of Gibraltar is transited by between 9,000 and 10,000 ships per year which, like the OS35 going to refuel at sea — a maneuver known as bunkering, legal but condemned by environmentalists—, change crew or refuel. Four cameras, three radars and various technical means report day and night this frenetic movement to the control tower of the port of Gibraltar. They are the same ones who detected that something was wrong on the night of September 29, around 9.25 p.m., when the captain of the bulk carrier – detained and investigated for it – ignored the orders of the captaincy of Gibraltar. The man, experienced at sea and of Syrian nationality, thought he had enough space to avoid an LNG carrier anchored next to the port, but a lateral movement caused him to hit the bulbous bow of the latter. In the control tower, they noticed the impact and warned the captain to stop. The person investigated decided to continue on his way, until the leak so complicated his integrity and that of his twenty sailors that he accepted the orders of the Harbor Master’s Office to get as close as possible to the coast so that the ship fails in a controlled manner. in a sandbar on the east face of the Rock.

The Gibraltar Port Authority’s quick response prevented the tragedy from becoming even more complex. The case of the tanker prestige, sunk off the coast of Galicia 20 years ago, already demonstrated the danger of moving a ship far from the coast. In August 2007, the merchant New Flame it collided with another ship in the strait and opened a leak to the first. The distance from the coast and the storms also complicated the rescue. The merchant ship separated two months later and the two parts were not fully recovered until August 2008. In October of the same year, the Phaedrus it ended up being beached in Gibraltar, having been swept away by a strong storm from the area where it was anchored (about 90 meters deep) with engine problems. The OS35 It is barely 17 meters deep and is partially protected from rough seas thanks to its location in a natural bay.

Gibraltar Harbor Master John Ghio (standing) at the Harbor Master's Office.
Gibraltar Harbor Master John Ghio (standing) at the Harbor Master’s Office. Marcos Moreno

“There is a lot of difference between the way this case was conducted and what happened with previous cases, like the Phaedrusexplains Ghio, who became port captain at the start of the year. The President assures that, in recent years, coastal states have improved their protection against disasters thanks to international agreements such as that of Nairobi, which established strict guidelines for cases of subsidence, such as the obligation to report accidents or that removal of the remains is the owner’s obligation. But, like everything in the strait, the understanding between Gibraltar and Spain also played its part in the affair of the OS35. El Peñón has already compared the plan in detail with the Captaincy of Algeciras. “It’s ridiculous to try to hide anything. Rejects do not respect borders,” concludes Ghio with satisfaction.

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