Concerned about the "critical" condition of the stricken Italian cargo ship Jolly Rubino which has run aground at Cape St Lucia, just south of Mapelane, salvage operators are focusing their efforts on trying to refloat her.

A piece of equipment that helps to tow a ship far quicker than the customary method has been welded onto the deck of the burning cargo ship.

If all went according to plan, towing operations would begin on Monday or Tuesday, Smit Salvage said on Sunday night.

Weather permitting, a floating towline with a breaking strength of 350 tons would be taken from the ship by the anchor handler vessel Pentow Service to the salvage tug Wolraad Woltemade, which would try to tow it off.

Smit Marine spokesperson Clare Gomes said the ship was still intact, but its condition was critical.

"Should another storm hit the coast, there is a possibility the vessel will break up."

If this were to happen, the 500 tons of heavy fuel oil in the tanks could be released, as well as toxic chemicals from her cargo.

Gomes said a salvage helicopter had flown the towline to the vessel on Sunday. The salvors also entered the engine room, where the level of the water had been found to be a lot lower than that outside the hull.

Attempts to refloat the ship would be made once water had been pumped out. Refloating would take at least 48 hours.

The pollution patrol aircraft Kuswag VII had reported that oil was continuing to leak from a crack on the port side and a slick was spreading parallel to the coast for about a mile, then out to sea for five miles, where the slick was breaking up, Gomes said.

But the situation around the ship was by no means an ecological crisis, and the amount of spilled oil on the beach appeared to be "minimal", according to KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife spokesperson Jeff Gaisford.

"KZN Wildlife staff are making gallant efforts to prevent any ingress of oil and chemicals into the Umfolozi River and St Lucia estuary by closing the mouths with sand and floating booms," he said.

However, if the ship cracked up any further and released more oil and there was a change in weather, this would pose a threat to St Lucia.

The 31 000 ton Jolly Rubino was abandoned on Tuesday after catching fire, and ran aground on Thursday 1,2 miles north-east of the Cape St Lucia lighthouse.

Sightseers from Richards Bay flocked to the site on Sunday and some families picnicked downwind of the still burning ship, disregarding a skull-and-crossbones sign.

  • Bella, the ship's dog, that was rescued on Friday, remains a celebrity in Richards Bay, where she is under the care of a veterinarian. Her stay may be short as the Italian representative of the ship's owners is determined to have her returned to her home in Genoa.