Maritime and environmental officials were on high alert after a fully laden coal ship, registered in Panama, lodged on a sandbank and began breaking up in high seas off Richards Bay.

Durban - Maritime and environmental officials were on high alert on Monday night after a fully laden coal ship, registered in Panama, lodged on a sandbank and began breaking up in high seas off Richards Bay.

The drama started earlier in the afternoon when the ship, Smart, carrying 148 000 tons of coal, was leaving the harbour in 10m swells.

Craig Lambinon, a spokesman for the National Sea Rescue Institute, said Transnet had put out a call to help three of its tugs which were trying to pull the vessel free of a shallow sandbank adjacent to the port exit channel.

“Our volunteer sea rescue duty crew launched and the NSRI helicopter rescue unit swimmers were dispatched to be on standby at the helicopter pad.

“Just after 4pm the structural integrity of the ship was compromised and the captain ordered the crew to abandon ship.”

Lambinon said a rescue swimmer was taken to the ship by helicopter and hoisted aboard where he assisted the 23 crew members and a port authority ship’s pilot up to the helicopter in relays.

Netcare 911 paramedics, who were waiting on the shore while the rescue operation was in progress, examined them all.

Spokesman Chris Botha said while they were shaken, there were no injuries.

Meanwhile, as crowds gathered at Alkantstrand, the ship began to break up. A witness said: “The swells caused the ship to bounce on the sandbank and it broke its back. The tug boats couldn’t get near it as the water was too shallow.”

Terry Hutson, The Mercury’s shipping correspondent, said if the ship snapped completely in half then the coal would wash ashore or sink.

“The problem mainly lies with the oil on board,” he said, estimating that a newly loaded ship at the beginning of its voyage would have up to 1 000 tons of heavy fuel.

“It is a massive operation to clean up this amount of oil and the risks are high,” he said.

Wayne Munger, community conservation manager at Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, said an oil spill would have a huge impact on the environment.

“It will affect everything from the fish to the birds, and if it gets into the harbour or mangrove swamps it will damage the delicate ecosystems in place there,” said Munger.

Port and South African Maritime Safety Authority (Samsa) officials were said to be in meetings last night, conducting investigations and evaluating how to save the ship, and were not available for comment.

The big waves in Richards Bay affected other beachgoers. Surfer Freddie le Roux broke his leg while surfing yesterday afternoon and was admitted to hospital.

* Meanwhile, the 12-day operation to salvage the cargo ship that ran aground off Buffels Bay near Knysna came to naught yesterday as the vessel began to sink about 70 nautical miles off the coast.

Still laden with more than 300 tons of oil and 15 000 tons of rice, damage to the Kiani Satu’s bow discovered on Sunday became worse yesterday morning, resulting in the ship taking on a massive amount of water.

“She is sinking. We are going to have to wave her goodbye,” said Captain Nigel Campbell, of Samsa.

Earlier, the salvage crew on board the ship were flown off the vessel.

A decision was taken for the salvage tug to pull the vessel further out to sea, where, Campbell said, it was hoped the cold water would “solidify” the oil on board, limiting its spread.

Department of Environmental Affairs spokesman Zolile Nqayi said the department had accepted that the vessel would sink. “Of course we are keeping a constant eye on the situation. Much of the oil has already been pumped into one of the working tanks, and that is where we expect it to stay when she goes down.”

Nqayi said the ship’s German owners, Esmeralda Schiffahrts, had given an assurance that all the costs - including sinking, salvage and pollution clean-up - would be covered by the company and its insurers. -

Additional reporting by John Harvey.

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The Mercury