Massive, Listing Cargo Ship Bobs Like A Kid’s Toy In The Choppy Waters Off France

Footage of the massive Modern Express cargo ship, bobbing in the waves off France’s coast, is enough to give anyone a bout of seasickness.

The 538-foot long, Panamanian beast was a mere day away from smacking into the coast near the Bay of Arcachon, in the region around Bordeaux, when it was finally towed, the Associated Press reported.

When it was finally tugged away from France on Monday, it was about 30 miles away from land. Now, it’s being lugged to safe harbor in Bilbao, Spain, at about 65 knots, CNN noted.

The cargo ship had been stuck in the Bay of Biscay between Spain and France since Tuesday, the New York Times added, when the crew sent a distress signal to report the vessel was tilted to one side 230 miles southwest of Penmarch, a town farther up the coast than where it ended up.

According to Agence France-Presse, the listing was likely caused by cargo that had come loose in the hull. Gusty winds and 20-foot waves made it impossible to right it, or rescue the craft.

Spanish helicopters arrived and rescued the 22 people, found clinging to the ship, on board and brought them to safety. Then efforts were made to get it out of the area and far from the French coast. But this mission was far from easy.

Dutch marine salvage experts from Smit Salvage said the wind, the swell, and the angle of the tilt (at one point reported to be 90 degrees) made rescue difficult, said a spokesman. He compared the ordeal to “climbing a mountain, but which is moving.”

Vice-Admiral Emmanuel de Oliveira said it was “totally impossible to put the cargo ship upright.”

They tried three times to tow it from the danger zone; at least one attempt, made on Friday, ended when powerful waves caused the tow line to snap.

The Modern Express, a roll-on/roll-off cargo ship, was carrying 3,600 tons of cargo from Gabon in West Africa to Le Havre in France, including timber, equipment, diggers, and some vehicles.

The daring effort to tow it from France was a last-ditch, daring attempt to stop it from hitting France head on. If towing once again failed and the craft was allowed to continue its collision course, it likely would’ve run aground Tuesday night around France’s Bay of Arcachon. There, it likely would’ve been dismantled or otherwise broken up.

But by Monday, a window of good weather allowed experts to try again before this seemingly inevitable collision. As dawn broke, experts from Smit were lowered by helicopter onto the vessel — listing at 50 degrees and slapped by large waves — made their last attempt to attach a tow line. This time, a tugboat was able to pull the much larger vessel away from land.

This time, the dangerous operation was a tentative success.

Later that day, maritime authorities confirmed that two Spanish tugboats were pulling it away with the help of a local vessel; experts had managed to “pivot it, point it towards the open sea, and begin towing it.” The goal is to get the massive vessel to safe harbor. Along the way, the authorities will monitor the line and the ship, crossing their fingers that it’ll hold all the way to Spain.

If the ship had run aground, its cargo of timber and equipment didn’t pose an environmental hazard in local waters. There had been no signs that the 300 tons of fuel on board was leaking into the bay, either. Just in case, a cleanup vessel was standing by.

[Photo by Loic Bernardin/AP]