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The first officer made a mistake. The cause of the grounding of the container ship Sealand Express is as simple and horrible as that, said Captain Bill Dernier of the South African Maritime Safety Authority.
When the Sealand Express began dragging her anchor and drifting towards a sandbar off Sunset Beach in a storm about 4am last Tuesday, the ship's first officer, who was officer of the watch, did not appreciate the danger his ship was headed for, Dernier said.
The vessel tracking system operators at Port Control had warned the ship's watchkeepers their vessel was dragging her anchor.
"What I have to stress is that Port Control is an advisory body, not a regulator or authority," Dernier said.
"(Only) in the Panama Canal can anybody overrule the authority of a ship's master. Port Control issued a warning and the ship's officer of the watch then had to make his own decisions.
"He did not sense the urgency and as a result his decisions were not relayed to the ship's engineers sharply enough."
The ship's master was not on the bridge at the time.
Early on Tuesday salvors Smit Marine reconnected the oil pipeline from the ship to the tug Oranjemund and had begun pumping, despite a two-metre swell.
"The Oranjemund can take 2 000 tons of oil at a time and that will mean all the oil will be off once pumping is completed," Dernier said.
"If the sea is too rough, they will release the Oranjemund and connect the Pacific Worker, which can handle the weather, but not take more than 500 tons at a time."
Salvors have a 48-hour spring tide "window" at the weekend to try again to refloat the stranded ship.
Plans have also been made to remove potentially toxic industrial alcohols from the ship by helicopter.
A dredger barge is expected to reach Cape Town late on Tuesday to help free the stranded vessel, while a large helicopter is being sent to help lift toxic cargo off the ship.
The salvage team have four chances to shift the Sealand Express - the high tides are at 4.11am and 4.29pm on Friday and 4.50am and 5.08pm on Saturday.
"We have a 48-hour period to do it," said Clare Gomes, spokesperson of Smit Marine South Africa.
"We are getting a dredger barge, the HAM 316, to come here. She'll arrive in about 24 hours' time.
"The barge is able to work in a water depth of five metres minimum, but she needs favourable conditions.
"She will be deployed at the bows of the ship to clear away the sand bar there.
"The refloating plan has two phases. First we need to swing the bows and then we have to pull the vessel off the sand. We hope to swing the bows to a point where the ship's heading will be offshore. Every degree extra that we can turn her will improve the chance of the ship coming off the beach."
The dredger can move up to 9 000 tons of sand an hour and would have to get into action on Wednesday and Thursday to clear the way for the ship's bow to swing.
A chemist from Smit's head office in Rotterdam has also arrived in Cape Town to analyse the chemicals in 33 hazardous materials (hazmat) containers aboard the ship and to work out the correct procedures for dealing with it.
Gomes said the operation to remove hazardous cargo would be undertaken under controlled conditions.
"The salvage team, as well as specialist sub-contractors, have over 400 hours incident free experience in this kind of operation. A hazmat technician will supervise the hazardous cargo removal operations and a hazmat paramedic will be onboard.
"All containers classed as hazardous are being constantly monitored by the on-board chemist and salvage team and they are not yet deemed to pose a threat to the safety of salvage personnel, crew or the public."