COMMENT: Deckchair army surveys smart Hoegh Osaka work

By Simon Warburton | 19 January 2015

Quick crew thinking saved Hoegh Osaka lives and ship: Picture courtesy Maritime & Coastguard Agency

Quick crew thinking saved Hoegh Osaka lives and ship: Picture courtesy Maritime & Coastguard Agency

There's been an unexpected rush on car parks down on the South Coast of England as the leviathan Hoegh Osaka - all 51,000t of her - continues to be dragged around on anchors after desperately struggling against 100mph storms lashing the Solent.

Anecdotal reports say 'serried ranks' of ship watchers have been lining up in deckchairs - really - to look out at the huge vessel that has been shifting around in the teeth of such mighty gales - all the while speculating as to the fate of what appear to be some pretty top end vehicles bound for some pricey Middle East showrooms.

In what appears to be a remarkably impressive display of seamanship, the giant vessel carrying 1,300 Jaguar Land Rovers, 65 Minis, one Rolls-Royce Wraith and 105 JCB machines, was deliberately rammed onto a sandbank in Southampton Water after listing severely shortly on departure on 3 January.

A brief and unexpected self-float a few days ago, allowed salvers, Svitzer, to rush in and tow the stricken car ship to its current position around two miles from the Isle of Wight and out of the way of the entrance to the UK's busiest automotive port.

Talking to Associated British Ports (ABP), it's clear why salvers went in so quickly. Southampton handles 745,000 vehicles every year - 60% of which are destined for export - and that number is rising reflecting both the success of the British automotive industry at the moment and the crucial role overseas buyers are playing.

The port's daily double tides and natural deep water harbour have turned this southern hub into one of the UK's most crucial business transit points. The Royal Navy estimates 95% of Britain's economic activity depends on the seas and every year the UK imports goods worth GBP524bn, making the Hoegh Osaka pilot's decision to beach the giant ship just outside Southampton a master stroke.

Some of the key players in this dramatic situation haven't exactly been rushing to talk about the implication for their businesses however. ABP has remained resolutely tight-lipped, while JLR and BMW don't appear overly keen to discuss their extremely valuable cargo potentially bumping around in the 3,000t of water  which poured through a crack in the ship caused by shifting machinery.

The fact the Hoegh Osaka crew managed to temporarily beach the vessel on that sandbank - a manoeuvre hailed by the UK Maritime & Coastguard Agency (MCA) - also gave Svitzer a breathing space in which to assess the situation and subsequently tow the vessel to safer waters.

"The Captain and pilot by all accounts did absolutely sterling work," an MCA spokeswoman tells me from Southampton. "There could have been a catastrophe."

Such seamanship has moderated the severe impact any potential blocking of the main shipping lane into Southampton could have had on British auto exports, which, although not apparently operating on a just-in-time basis, nonetheless heavily rely on an intricate web of logistics being woven every single day to make the system work.

Southampton's role in the UK auto business cannot be overestimated. I travel through the port regularly and it's starkly obvious how large the scale of it is, with colossal container ships crowding the quaysides, jostling with equally leviathan cruise vessels.

Despite the heroic efforts of the Hoegh Osaka crew, the salvers' work is now only really beginning after those 100mph winds, which made the Solent a maelstrom of huge waves

The storm has abated, meaning salvers can board safely using either tugs or the helicopter, which was chartered from Norway to winch equipment and men onto the shifting and heavily listing deck.

Talking to the UK's Secretary of State Representative (SOSREP) for Salvage and Maritime Intervention, Hugh Shaw this week down on the south coast, it seemed as if salvers being winched down from helicopters onto huge ships listing alarmingly at 52 degrees into the sea is a completely routine affair, but if rescuing vessels is your job, well maybe it is.

Those 1,400 cars and JCBs were bound for an initial rapid stop in Bremerhaven and Hamburg, before most of them wound their way across the Middle East, to destinations as exotic as Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Dubai, indicating some of that cargo is decidedly top-end.

Not that automakers are too keen on detailing the exact nature - and value - of their vehicles. BMW is confining itself to noting the retail cost of its Minis is around US$2m, while the Rolls-Royce Wraith value is an estimate, given its bespoke nature, of perhaps GBP240,000.

Insurers are not falling over themselves either to detail what must be vast costs involved in righting the Hoegh and towing her back into Southampton, but I got a tiny hint of the complexity involved from Norwegian company Gard, based in Arendal.

"Gard is the marine insurer for the vessel," a Gard spokeswoman tells me. "Their involvement is for the insurance with liabilities from casualties and pollution - currently there has not been any - and for damage to the hull.

"We would not comment on day to day operations - we can confirm our involvement as an insurer and that is all we are willing to say at the moment. The cargo will be insured by a different insurance company. These are huge amounts of money - they are not taken on by any one insurer."

BMW told me it had its "normal insurance," while JLR is remaining resolutely quiet on the nature of its vehicles and their value. Interestingly JCB said ownership of its 105 vehicles had already passed to Middle East dealers, so presumably events in the Solent are being followed with intense interest in Damman and Dubai.

The Port of Southampton is anxiously monitoring the Hoegh Osaka's situation, with an eye on maintaining the flow of its extremely busy daily operations, while the government is maintaining a forensic watch on any oil pollution into the sea.

Some hydraulic fluid has leaked from vehicles on board, with Svitzer salvers using a complex procedure to draw this to the top of the 3,000t of leaked water, but it appears the 500t of mixed fuel the Hoegh was carrying, remains intact so far. Just to add to the complexity, the salvers are also using rope teams to move about the ship, in semi-darkness to boot.

So many colossal vessels carrying thousands of cars pass through Southampton and other UK ports every day that it is of genuine surprise when one does founder.

However, those shiny new vehicles currently languishing on multiple decks in the Hoegh Osaka are almost certainly bound for the wreckers' yard as automakers shudder at the thought of future legal and insurance implications of cars developing issues down the line.

There is precedent for such drastic action, as Mazda showed in 2006, when it scrapped 4,700 US and Canada-bound vehicles from the car-carrying vessel, Cougar Ace, which almost capsized off the Aleutian Islands in late July and the same fate could await the 1,300 brand new cars on the Osaka.

Southampton is clearly - so far - breathing a huge sigh of relief at what could have been a catastrophic snowball effect had the Hoegh Osaka blocked the main shipping lane into the port, while the onboard crew's actions clearly prevented any loss of life.

Some of the longest trains the UK network can stand, deliver vast numbers of vehicles for export into Southampton and any blockage would have led to vast logistical headaches for all concerned as ships and rail transporters started to back up in numbers.

Had that happened the subsequent maritime traffic jam would have kept the deckchair watchers - armed apparently with sandwiches and binoculars - riveted for weeks on end - and those GBP524bn of imports languishing on the high seas.

The incident shows the delicate balancing act any island nation has to undertake on a daily basis in order to make its country function effectively. A carefully choreographed series of events has to occur in sequence so the whole can take place as a sum of its parts.

Southampton can thank what appears to be some pretty rapid thinking by the Hoegh Osaka Captain and pilot for the continuation of its operations with almost minimal disruption. Smart action indeed.