The crew of the HMS Argyll rescued 27 crew members of the roll-on/roll-off containership Grande America who were forced to abandon ship due to a fire on board in the Bay in Biscay overnight.
The frigate, which on her way home to Plymouth after nine-month deployment in the Asia-Pacific region, responded to a mayday call from the 28,000-tonne, Grimaldi Lines vessel about 150 miles southwest of Brest, France, reporting that a fire had broken out in the cargo of cars and containers and the crew was abandoning ship.
All 27 crew members of Grande America abandoned ship in a single enclosed lifeboat in ‘horrendous’ conditions, according to the Royal Navy.
UK Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson commended the crew of HMS Argyll for their ‘swift and selfless response’ that ‘undoubtedly saved 27 lives’ in very dangerous and difficult conditions.
“This recue demonstrates that even on the final leg of a challenging nine month deployment to the Far East, the Royal Navy’s sailors remain vigilant and professional at all times,” said Williamson.
In the heavy seas, the orange lifeboat was “bobbing around like a cork in a bathtub,” said Lieutenant Commander Dave Tetchner, HMS Argyll’s Weapon Engineer Officer.
“The conditions were horrendous – the vessels were rolling at 30 degrees which made it extremely hairy getting the sailors safely on board,” Tetchner said.
“Royal Marines were on the ropes hauling people up, the sea boat was pushing the lifeboat against Argyll,” Tetchner added.
A video of the ship on fire and part of the rescue is below:
The 27 sailors rescued were being taken to the French port of Brest. Tetchner said none suffered life-threatening injuries but some required hospital treatment due to smoke inhalation.
The Italian-flagged MV Grande America was still ablaze when Argyll left the scene around 5 a.m. Monday morning.
The vessel was underway to Casablanca from Hamburg when the fire broke out at 8 p.m. Sunday evening.
The Commanding Officer of HMS Argyll, Commander Toby Shaughnessy, commented: “I am incredibly proud of my Ship’s Company and the way they performed in this rescue effort in the most challenging of conditions.
“Without doubt this was a near run thing. The conditions were on the limit for recovery and this could just as easily been a different result.
“It was an exceptional team effort and there’s a great feeling on board after a successful result – everyone was saved,” Commander Shaughnessy said.
Update: The MV Grande America has sunk in Bay of Biscay in water depth of 4,600 meters, France’s Marine Nationale reported. The agency said ship sank at March 12, at 1526 local time about 180 nautical miles off France’s coast.
Previous: The situation on board the Grimaldi Lines combination roll-on/roll-off containership Grande America worsened overnight in the Bay of Biscay as the fire continues to burn and the ship now listing fairly significantly to starboard.
Fire fighting by the emergency tug Abeille Bourbon, which has contributed to the list, has been suspended.
About ten containers fell into the water near the ship overnight, officials said.
The Abeille Bourbon has now left the area of ??operations, relieved by the offshore supply vessel VN Sapeur which sailed from the port of Brest Monday night.
The Grande America continues to drift slowly to the east and was located about 200 nautical miles (350 kilometers) off the coast of France as of Tuesday.
Grimaldi Lines has contracted the marine salvage company Ardent, which has contracted two tugs to respond to the incident: the Union Lynx from Vigo, Spain and Tera Sea Hawk from Rotterdam. The tugs are expected to arrive on scene Tuesday night and Wednesday, respectively.
Officials said Tuesday that a sharp deterioration of weather conditions is expected in the area over the next 48 hours which will limit salvage operations.
French authorities reported winds 30-35 knots, gusting to 50 knots, with seas of 4 to 5 meters.
The fire on board the Italian-flagged Grande America broke out Sunday night as the ship was underway in the Bay of Biscay during a voyage from Hamburg, Germany to Casablanca, Morocco. The fire is primarily located in cargo containers in the forward portion of the ship.
On March 10, the Italian con/ro Grande America caught fire about 140 nm off Finistère, forcing all 27 members of her crew to abandon ship.
The French maritime agency Premar Atlantique received a distress call from the America at 2000 hours Sunday night. Her master initially reported that the vessel would make her way to a port of refuge at A Coruña, Spain, but the situation on board quickly deteriorated. The fire grew out of control, with several containers burning on board, and the ship halted her course.
The Royal Navy frigate HMS Argyll diverted to the scene to provide assistance, along with the rescue tug Abeille Bourbon. At 0200 hours, with the fire worsening, the master of the Grande America ordered abandon ship, with all 27 crewmembers aboard one lifeboat.
According to the Royal Navy, the lifeboat was damaged by heavy seas as it launched and it was unable to make headway on its own. HMS Argyll launched her small boat, which pushed the lifeboat alongside the frigate so that the America's crew could transfer over. By 0400, Argyll's crew successfully brought all of the survivors aboard.
Courtesy Royal Navy
Courtesy Royal Navy
"The conditions were horrendous – the vessels were rolling at 30 degrees, which made it extremely hairy getting the sailors safely on board," said Lt. Commander Dave Tetchner. Cmdr. Toby Shaughnessy, the Argyll's CO, described the sea state as "on the limit for recovery."
None of the crew sustained life-threatening injuries, but several required hospital treatment. A medical transport helicopter based in Brest provided them with medevac services on Monday morning. "Every one of them suffered smoke inhalation," said Tetchner.
Premar Atlantique said in a statement that the Abeille Bourbon remains on scene and is working to fight the fire using her water cannon. The agency has asked the America's operator to formulate a salvage response plan.