In Pictures: The Amazing Race to Save the Modern Express

The Panama-flagged Modern Express adrift in the Bay of Biscay. Photo credit: French Navy
The Panama-flagged Modern Express adrift in the Bay of Biscay. Photo credit: French Navy

After spending nearly six days listing and adrift in the Bay of Biscay, threatening to run aground along the French coast, the 164-meter Modern Express was towed into port of Bilbao on February 3, 2016. 

The amazing race to save the Modern Express began on January 26th, 2016 when British authorities picked up a distress call from the roll-on/roll-off cargo ship after it had lost stability in heavy seas in the western Bay of Biscay.

The ship, sailing from Gabon to Le Havre, France with 3,600 tons of wood and heavy construction equipment, was listing by about 40 degrees and in danger of capsizing further, requiring the evacuation of all 22 crew members.

Cougar Ace listing in July 2006. Photo credit: U. S. Coast Guard
Photo credit: U. S. Coast Guard

For those who remember, the situation has been reminiscent of the Cougar Ace incident from 10 years ago. The slightly larger car carrier was sailing to Japan in 2006 when it developed a 60 degree list 250 nautical miles off Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. All 23 crew members were rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard, and the ship was eventually towed to safety and later uprighted in an operation led by Titan Salvage. Only in that case, one salvor was tragically killed while climbing inside the vessel. Far less tragically, Mazda lost thousands of cars. 

As for the Modern Express, the ship was eventually righted and sold to a shipbreaker in Turkey, where it arrived in October. 

 

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The Falmouth Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre (MRCC), in charge of coordinating the initial response, called on Spain to assist, dispatching search and rescue helicopters, aircraft and nearby ships to the Modern Express’s location. 

Ship Particulars:

Name: Modern Express
Type: Roll-On/Roll-Off vehicle carrier, PCC – Pure Car Carrier
Flag: Panama
GT: 33,831
DWT: 10,454
Length: 164 m
Breadth: 28 m
Draught: 8.72 m
Speed: 19 knots
Built: 2001

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Photo credit: Salvamento Maritimo

By the end of the first day, all 22 crew members had been hoisted from the deck in a daring rescue carried out by two Spanish SAR helicopters. The crew members were later taken to shore without injury.

Severe weather played a central role throughout the salvage, making things difficult for everyone involved. 

Photo credit: Salvamento Maritimo
Photo credit: Salvamento Maritimo
Photo credit: Salvamento Maritimo
Photo credit: Salvamento Maritimo

Just check out the video of this rescue:

Now abandoned, the Modern Express drifted eastward into French waters and the response was handed over to the French Navy and Maritime Prefect for the Atlantic on Wednesday.

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Meanwhile, Modern Express’s owner, Cido Shipping, hired Dutch salvage company SMIT Salvage to save the vessel before it either sank, collided with another ship or ran ashore. The emergency tug Abeille Bourbon, under charter by the French Navy, and the French frigate FS Primauguet were also sent to the scene. 

By Wednesday, the Modern Express was drifting at a speed of about 3 knots, reaching approximately 200 miles west of La Rochelle, France. Surveillance flights during the day indicated that vessel’s list had increased to about 50 degrees, suggesting that the car carrier may have been taking on water or the cargo inside was shifting. 

The crew of the Abeille Bourbon were first to relocate the drifting cargo ship and snapped this photo on Wednesday:

Modern Express pictured adrift in the Bay of Biscay, January 27, 2016. Photo credit: Marine Nationale
Modern Express pictured adrift in the Bay of Biscay, January 27, 2016. Photo credit: Marine Nationale

With the Abeille Bourbon already on scene, the FS Primauguet, carrying a Lynx helicopter, arrived early Thursday. They were later joined by a salvage team from SMIT Salvage along with two tugs, Centaurus and Ria Vigo. 

Weather still prevented the salvage team from being transferred to ship. An update issued at 18:00 Thursday (Jan. 28) said the Modern Express was located approximately 168 nautical miles west of La Rochelle, France and drifting east at just over 1 knot.

Modern Express pictured January 28, 2016. Photo credit: French Navy
Modern Express pictured January 28, 2016. Photo credit: French Navy
Modern Express pictured January 28, 2016. Photo credit:
Modern Express pictured January 28, 2016, with Abeille Bourbon (foreground) and FS Primauguet. (background). Photo credit: French Navy
Photo credit: French Navy
Tug Ria Vigo. Photo credit: French Navy
Tug
Tug Centaurus. Photo credit: French Navy

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By Friday morning (Jan. 29), officials determined that the Modern Express was stable, albeit still listing, and showing no signs of taking on water. The ship continued to drift at a speed of 1 knot approximately 150 nautical miles west of La Rochelle.

By late morning, Maritime Prefect approved the plan to tow the vessel, a difficult task considering seas were still in the range of 4 to 5 meters, and a four man team was transferred to cargo ship by the helicopter. Scaling the ship like rock climbers, the salvors made their way towards the bow. 

Cargo "Modern Express " le Samedi 30 Janvier 2016 au large des côtes françaises.
The Lynx helicopter drops a four man team onto the deck of the Modern Express, January 29, 2016. Photo credit: French Navy
Photo credit: French Navy
Photo credit: French Navy
Photo Credit: French Navy
Photo Credit: French Navy
Photo credit: French Navy
Photo credit: French Navy
Photo: Marine Nationale
Photo credit: French Navy
Le batîment de commerce "Modern Express" est à la dérive au large des côtes françaises, suite a une avarie et a l'évacuation de son équipage. L'Abeille Bourbon ainsi que la Frégate Anti-sous-marine (FASM) Primauguet arrivent sur zone avec les experts de la Marine Nationale, pour une évaluation de la situation. Le Jeudi 28 Janvier 2016 au large des côtes françaises.
Photo credit: French Navy

After reaching the bow, they were able to attach a line from a tug to the Modern Express, but the line parted and the team was hoisted off before nightfall. 

During the operation, one member of the salvage team suffered minor injuries.  

Le batîment de commerce "Modern Express" est à la dérive au large des côtes françaises, suite a une avarie et a l'évacuation de son équipage. L'Abeille Bourbon ainsi que la Frégate Anti-sous-marine (FASM) Primauguet arrivent sur zone avec les experts de la Marine Nationale, pour une évaluation de la situation. Le Vendredi 29 Janvier 2016 au large des côtes françaises.
Photo credit: French Navy

Also on Friday, the AHTS Argonaute arrived with pollution prevention equipment should it be required. 

Le batîment de commerce "Modern Express" est à la dérive au large des côtes françaises, suite a une avarie et a l'évacuation de son équipage. L'Abeille Bourbon ainsi que la Frégate Anti-sous-marine (FASM) Primauguet arrivent sur zone avec les experts de la Marine Nationale, pour une évaluation de la situation. Le Vendredi 29 Janvier 2016 au large des côtes françaises.
Photo credit: French Navy
Le batîment de commerce "Modern Express" est à la dérive au large des côtes françaises, suite a une avarie et a l'évacuation de son équipage. L'Abeille Bourbon ainsi que la Frégate Anti-sous-marine (FASM) Primauguet arrivent sur zone avec les experts de la Marine Nationale, pour une évaluation de la situation. Le Vendredi 29 Janvier 2016 au large des côtes françaises.
Photo credit: French Navy

By the end of the day Friday, the Modern Express reached 148 nautical miles west of La Rochelle as it continued to drift at 1 knot. 

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On Saturday, the Modern Express started to pick up speed as weather deteriorated. Wind was reportedly gusting to 70 km/h with seas up to 6 meters, causing the Modern Express to drift at 2 to 3 knots to within just 120 nautical miles Gironde as of 9 a.m.

At that point, SMIT Salvage brought in two additional experts and transferred the injured team member back to shore as they assessed their options. 

Photo credit: French Navy
Photo credit: French Navy

By early afternoon, the team made their second trip to tow the vessel despite the worsening weather. 

Photo credit: French Navy
Photo credit: French Navy
Photo credit: French Navy
Photo credit: French Navy
Photo credit: French Navy
Photo credit: French Navy
Photo credit: French Navy
Photo credit: French Navy

Photo credit: French Navy

Unfortunately, by the end of the day the team didn’t attempt a tow and at 17:30, the Modern Express had drifted to 108 nautical miles from Gironde.

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By Sunday, weather had deteriorated even further, preventing the team from even attempting to board the vessel altogether.

MV Modern Express pictured in the Bay of Biscay, Sunday, January 31, 2016. Photo credit: Marine Nationale

During an afternoon press conference, Vice Admiral Emmanuel de Oliveira of Maritime Prefect Atlantic told the public that crews would begin preparing for the possible grounding of the Modern Express if the an attempt to tow the vessel on Monday morning was unsuccessful. 

It was estimated that the Modern Express would run aground sometime between Monday and Tuesday evening somewhere in Landes department (county) in France. The good news was that the coastline was sandy and the fuel aboard the Modern Express, some 300 tons of diesel, remained secure.

By the end of the day Sunday, the ship had reached just 50 nautical miles west of the seaside town of Arcachon, France. 

Cargo "Modern Express " le Dimanche 31 Janvier 2016 au large des côtes françaises.

Monday was the big day. Weather had improved and the ship slowed to 1 knot as it continued to drift closer and closer towards shore.

By 08:30 a.m., the team from SMIT Salvage were airlifted back onto the ship and by 09:15, they had made their way to the bow, eventually connecting a line to the tug Centaurus. But before the towing could commence, the team still needed to be removed from the ship. 

Photo credit: French Navy
Photo credit: French Navy
Photo credit: French Navy
Photo credit: French Navy
Photo credit: Modern Express
Photo credit: Modern Express

Once off the ship, the Centaurus was finally able to turn the Modern Express around and begin towing it out to sea.

At its closest point, the Modern Express was just 26 nautical miles from shore.  

Photo credit: French Navy
Photo credit: French Navy
Photo credit: French Navy
Photo credit: French Navy
Photo credit: French Navy
Photo credit: French Navy
Photo credit: French Navy
Photo credit: French Navy

By 13:15, the Modern Express and Centaurus were doing 3 knots and had made it 46 nautical miles from the coast. By the end of the day on Monday, the vessels were had made to 65 nautical miles. 

Modern Express under tow, February 1, 2016. Photo credit: Marine Nationale
Modern Express under tow, February 1, 2016. Photo credit: Marine Nationale

Later on Monday, Maritime Prefect announced that Spain had granted the ship a place of refuge at the port of Bilbao. The convoy reached Spanish waters by Tuesday morning.

Overnight, the frigate Primauguet and tug Abeille Bourbon both left for their homeport in Brest, a good indication the threat had past. 

The latest update on Tuesday said the convoy had reached 29 nautical miles northeast of Bilbao, with improved weather and seas of 2 to 2.5 meters. 

Modern Express under tow Tuesday, February 2, 2016. Photo credit: French Navy
Modern Express under tow Tuesday, February 2, 2016. Photo credit: French Navy

Arrival in Bilbao is scheduled for Monday night or Tuesday morning. Before long, the Modern Express will likely be upright and returned to service. 

Stricken cargo ship Modern Express is towed into the port of Bilbao, northern Spain, February 3, 2016. REUTERS/Vincent West
Stricken cargo ship Modern Express is towed into the port of Bilbao, northern Spain, February 3, 2016. REUTERS/Vincent West

According to Spain, the Modern Express docked safely at the port of Bilbao at 6:35 p.m. Wednesday (Feb. 3). 

All-in-all a happy ending for those involved.

The cargo ship Modern Express lists at a mooring in the port of Bilbao, in Zierbena, northern Spain, February 4, 2016. Photo credit: REUTERS/Vincent West
The cargo ship Modern Express lists at a mooring in the port of Bilbao, in Zierbena, northern Spain, February 4, 2016. Photo credit: REUTERS/Vincent West

Full Coverage: Modern Express Adrift in Bay of Biscay

In May, SMIT posted this video about the salvage on Youtube: