A shrimp trawler that put its 14 crew members in fear of their lives when it partially sank in the northernmost part of Svalbard in late December is offering gruelling, but invaluable and unprecedented knowledge to the emergency officials from several agencies involved in rescuing the crew and the subsequent months of salvage operations in the harsh winter environment, according to a report issued following the latest operation this week.
Efforts to secure the Northguider in a strait at Hinlopenstredet, in protected nature reserve area between Spitsbergen and Nordaustlandet, until it can removed this summer were successfully completed and “given us new knowledge about operations in such remote, dark and cold areas,” Rune Bergstrøm, operations manager for the Emergency Planning Department at the Coastal Administration, said in a prepared statement detailing the operation.
“No similar operations have been carried out in such demanding waters before that we know of,” he said. “The path that we’re walking on and the cold climate means we are constantly facing new challenges. During the last cruise the crew experienced an effective temperature of down to minus 43 degrees (Celsuis),” he said.
Fourteen crew members aboard the trawler were stranded after it was disabled and grounded on an icy shore with a list of about 15 degrees due to water leaking into the engine room. An investigation into the incident was completed in early February by The Governor of Svalbard has been sent to the Norwegian Maritime Directorate for follow-up, but details of the cause have not yet been publicly disclosed.
Rescuers using both of The Governor of Svalbard’s helicopters removed the crew members from the ship a few hours after their distress call in the total darkness of polar winter, with wind and snow complicating efforts. Similar problems delayed and complicated the removal of fuel and other hazardous materials a couple of weeks later.
The most recent operation by officials from the Norwegian Coast Guard and others focused on preventing further damage to the trawler and environment until it can be safely removed. Workers removed additional waste and potentially polluting equipment from the ship, but a more extensive operation was rejected due to the conditions, Bergstrøm said.
“We originally considered starting the removal of the wreckage during this period, but after a thorough assessment of the safety involving emergency personnel and the challenging climatic conditions at this time of the year it was decided that the wreckage should be removed in August,” he said. “The unstable weather we experienced during this operation shows that the assessment was correct. A salvage operation during this period could have been very challenging and risky, and the probability is great that the operation would had been interrupted along the way.”
Crew members installed three different systems with positioning equipment on the ship to be able to keep track of any movements. The sensors can also be used in the event of a “worst-case scenario” where the vessel moves/sinks from its current location and needs to be found. Measures have also been taken making it easier to recover the vessel in such a scenario.
The company that owns the ship and its insurer are working on the salvage plan in cooperation with the Norwegian Coastal Administration, and are responsible for the salvage operation when it happens in August.
The incident is adding fuel to a debate about Svalbard’s emergency preparedness, which has been called into question due to incidents in recent years including two major avalanches in Longyearbyen and a helicopter crash near Barentsburg that killed eight people. Svalbard’s remoteness means additional help from the mainland can take a day or more to arrive, a problem magnified when conditions make operations using resources already here risky or impossible.