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Tanker collision puts new tugs out of action

TWO brand new tugs at Shetland’s oil port of Sullom Voe have been tied up indefinitely after a collision with an oil tanker, described by tug crews as “a classic nightmare scenario”.

Shetland Islands Council, which operates the port, has launched an investigation and the Marine Accident Investigation Branch has been informed of the incident, which crews say could have cost lives.

SIC harbourmaster Roger Moore confirmed that the shuttle tanker Loch Rannoch, which delivers oil to the port from the BP operated Schiehallion oil field west of Shetland, collided with the tug Solan on Tuesday evening.

The Solan is one of two £7 million tugs delivered to the port from a Spanish shipyard in February. The vessels, which are two of the most powerful harbour tugs in the world with a bollard pull of 90 tonnes, have been beset by problems ever since they arrived.

These problems have restricted their ability to perform and created tension between crews and management, who have never admitted to technical difficulties with the tugs.

Tuesday’s incident occurred shortly after the unladen Loch Rannoch left her jetty to return to the oil field.

The Solan was close in to the 76,000 tonne tanker and still had a rope attached when she suddenly lost both power and control. The tanker, which was moving at about five knots, struck the tug on the stern.

Then power suddenly returned to the tug for no apparent reason, a situation crews say is not uncommon, and she returned to her berth.

No one was seriously injured and the vessels were relatively unscathed, however crewmen described the incident as “as serious as it gets”. They said that under slightly different circumstances the tug could have been sunk or rolled over with the loss of life.

One said: “If the tanker hit her amidships you are looking at a possible catastrophe.”

In April 2007 three crewmen were killed on the River Clyde when their tugboat Flying Phantom was struck by the 40,000 tonne bulk carrier Red Jasmine in fog.

One SIC crewman said their confidence in the two new Sullom Voe tugs had dropped to “zero”, and by mutual agreement between staff and management the boats had been taken out of service.

Captain Moore said he could not comment on the incident until the investigation had been completed, but insisted there was no evidence of a problem with the vessel.

“At present there is no indication of a mechanical failure on the tugs, however both the Solan and the Bonxie have been removed from service,” he said.

“We have an investigation underway and the Marine Accident Investigation Branch have been informed. We will review the situation when we have learned the lessons from the investigation.”

The Solan and Bonxie were only delivered in February this year after delays due to steering problems in Valencia where they were built and trialled. Since their arrival they have experienced problems with the steering, winch and control systems.

The tugs are due to be taken to an unnamed shipyard early next year to have their hulls modified in an effort to resolve some of the handling problems.