All at sea

6 May 2021

The Christos XXIV was towing the Russian oil tanker Varzuga from Murmansk (Russia) to a Turkish shipbreaking yard. On Monday, May 3, 2021, at around 22:00, the tow rope broke and the Christos XXIV lost control of the Varzuga north-west of Cherbourg.

The Christos XXIV / Varzuga convoy left Murmansk on April 17, 2021. It was expected to arrive in Aliaga on May 26 after a 9,000 km journey through the Arctic Ocean, the North Sea, the English Channel, the Bay of Biscay, off Spain and Portugal and the Mediterranean Sea. In Murmansk, just before departure, 7 deficiencies were reported on board the tug by the marine safety inspectors concerning the safety of navigation, the life saving appliances, the radio communications and the pollution prevention.

Varzuga  © French Navy – Lumir Lugue

The Christos XXIV belongs to the Greek shipowner Spanopoulos based in Salamis. In addition to a fleet of harbour tugs, the Spanopoulos group operates sea-going tugs including the Christos XXII, Christos XXXIV and Christos XXIV. These tugs are all old. The main task of these tugs is to convoy from Russian and European ports end-of-life vessels (liners, car ferries, container ships, tankers) who no longer have autonomous propulsion to Turkish shipbreaking yards. The Christos are well known to the Maritime Prefecture of the Channel and the North Sea and the Maritime Prefecture of the Atlantic. In January 2013, the Christos XXII collided with the Emsstrom, an ex-German coastguard vessel, which she was towing to Turkish yards, following a mishandling. The Emsstrom sank in the English Channel in waters under British jurisdiction. A year later, in December 2013, the same Christos XXII requested by the Dutch owner of the cargo ship Victoriaborg was unable to tow the vessel to Saint-Malo. The Victoriaborg was damaged to the helm during the cyclone Dirk. The Dutch owner had to ask for the help of Dutch tugs to overcome the failure of the Christos XXII. (*)

The new failure of the Christos XXIV / Varzuga convoy is another illustration of the risks of long-distance towing of vessels to be scrapped. The Christos XXIV is 50 years old, flies the Panama flag, her official owner is IMS Christos XXIV registered in the Marshall Islands c/o Spanopoulos Group SA. She is 3,598 horsepower compared to 21,456 for the Abeille Liberté. The Varzuga tanker is 164.50 m long. She was built in 1977 in Germany. Her grounding or sinking or collision with a merchant ship or fishing vessel could have caused a marine accident or a residual oil spill in the Channel.

The long-distance towing of end-of-life ships exposes the North Sea, the Channel Sea, South Brittany and the Bay of Biscay to the risk of shipwreck. One may recall in particular the Maersk Shipper and Maersk Searcher who, during their conveying from the Danish port of Fredericia to Aliaga, sank off the Sein island on December 12, 2016.

This is why Robin des Bois insists on the need to scrap end-of-life ships, especially when they are non longer autonomous, as close as possible to the ports where they are laid up. The Russian tanker could technically have been scrapped in yards in Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands or even Belgium, all of which are approved by the European Union.

Robin des Bois considers that given the decrepitude and age of the Christos XXIV, the Maritime Prefect of Cherbourg should require that the stakeholders replace her with a more reliable ship.

Finally, the drift of the Varzuga, fortunately brought under control by the Abeille Liberté, also illustrates the potential risks of the coexistence at sea of various maritime traffics and offshore wind farms.

(*) “Christos XXII, the salvage tug which brings bad luck”




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