Ships are so small, the sea so vast Wrecks: Every year, about 150 ships are declared a total loss. A few of them vanish without a trace, sometimes without even a distress call.

Sun Journal

January 28, 1998|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

Ships sink or get into other trouble. It happens as surely as waves tower 65 feet, rocks tear holes in hulls, storms crush containers, metal rusts through and vessels collide on the high seas.

Disasters are visited not only on the Titanics of the world. They happen far more often to anonymous merchant vessels in accidents rarely noticed outside the maritime industry. Every week, on average, three ships are total losses on the world's high seas.

Less than two weeks ago tragedy washed over the Flare, a bulk carrier owned by a Greek company and registered in Cyprus. The ship, possibly vulnerable to large waves because it was empty and riding high, was steaming from Rotterdam in the Netherlands on Jan. 16 to pick up grain in Montreal. South of Newfoundland, waves were 12 feet high when crewmen heard loud bangs. The ship began to break in half, issued a garbled mayday call and sank.

A helicopter rescued four stunned and hypothermic crew members -- three Filipinos and a Romanian, one of whom tried to fight off rescuers. The 21 others drowned or were missing and presumed lost. Typically, few in the outside world noticed.

A few days earlier, on Dec. 31, the Merchant Patriot foundered 270 miles east of Cape Canaveral, Fla., after a water pipe burst and flooded the ship. All 28 crew members were saved.

On Oct. 23, the 4,400-ton Vanessa, carrying fertilizer, sank in a storm off Nova Scotia. Ten crewmen were saved; five died.

The old sailor's song is always in fashion: "Many a brave heart lies asleep in the deep."

At any given time 50,000 to 60,000 merchant vessels of more than 500 tons are operating on the world's seas, and every year for the past decade, 140 to 160 of them were declared total losses because of sinkings at sea, groundings, collisions and other problems.

The source is Norman Hooke, senior coordinator of Lloyd's Maritime Information Services, Colchester, England, a subsidiary of the famed insurance-underwriting firm Lloyd's of London.

"It was worse in the 1970s," says Hooke. "Annual losses were sometimes over 200 ships. Many were tankers. There is no trend one way or the other. Insurance fraud is rare, maybe a ship a year."

Loss of life varies greatly each year. A merchant vessel sinking in deep water may lose none, some or all its crew of 25 to 30. Ferries may be huge disasters: 900 were lost on the ferry Estonia in 1994 and 500 on a ferry in Tanzania in 1996.

Technology has improved the survival chances of today's commercial crews. Required are immersion suits for crew members and emergency floating transmitters -- EPIRBs, for Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon, which send signals to satellites when submerged in water.

More frequent than total losses are serious but noncatastrophic accidents.

"An amazing statistic," says Capt. Brian H. Hope, a Chesapeake Bay pilot guiding ocean-going vessels here, "is that each year 20 percent of large ocean-going ships have some kind of casualty.

"Not shipwrecks or total losses but serious accidents -- fires, explosions, groundings, collisions, storm damage."

During heavy weather, cargo occasionally washes overboard or breaks its bonds inside a ship and causes serious damage. Off Cape May, N.J., on Jan. 4, 1992, the Santa Clara I lost 21 containers in 28-foot seas. Some contained hundreds of drums of hazardous arsenic trioxide, which the U.S. Coast Guard spent several million dollars in recovering.

"The sea is unforgiving," says Andrew Mutch, a marine surveyor and amateur sailor from Annapolis. He has seen heavy ships' steel containers torn to shreds and one 40-foot container 9.5 feet high crushed into wreckage 2 feet high. He's heard of seamen lashed to the wheel 70 feet up in wheelhouses whose windows were smashed by waves.

Hope, of Ellicott City, says it's "absolutely eerie" when he hears that a large vessel he once guided down the bay winds up weeks or months later at the bottom of some distant sea.

On Nov. 4, 1997, he piloted on the bay one of the most powerful ships on the high seas, the 40,000-ton high-speed container ship MSC Carla, built in 1972 and owned by the Mediterranean Shipping Co.

The Carla sailed to Europe and was headed back to Baltimore and other ports when it encountered a vicious North Atlantic storm. On Nov. 24, it broke in half 40 miles south of the Azores. The bow and its many containers sank, but the stern with other containers was towed to Portugal. All 34 crew members were rescued.

Hope once piloted the Gold Bond Conveyor, a gypsum rock carrier, which later sank in a bad storm off Nova Scotia, with all hands lost.

He often piloted the Pasithea, a mammoth coal carrier 980 feet long and weighing 75,000 tons -- the largest ship coming to Baltimore in the 1980s. "One day she just vanished without a trace off the coast of Japan," Hope says.

Few ships disappear that way, says Hooke, author of a definitive volume, "Maritime Casualties: 1963-1996." Most are able to send radio messages or satellite signals. But the deep continues to hide complete mysteries.

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