Today Marks Ten Years Since MSC Napoli Ran Into Trouble in the English Channel

MSC Napoli after suffering catastrophic hull damage in the English Channel in January 2007. Photo: UK MAIB
MSC Napoli after suffering catastrophic hull damage in the English Channel in January 2007. Photo: UK MAIB

Today marks ten years since the UK-flagged MSC Napoli ran into trouble in the English Channel, setting off what is probably the largest maritime salvage job in UK history after the ship was intentionally grounded and broken up off the Devon coast.

On the morning of January 18, 2007, the 4,419 teu containership MSC Napoli encountered heavy seas during a passage of the English Channel, causing catastrophic hull failure. All 26 crewmembers abandoned ship into two lifeboats and were picked up by Royal Navy helicopters.

“The scale of the response and resources required to the salvage the NAPOLI was immense. Fortunately, shipping incidents as time and resource heavy as the NAPOLI are rare within the UK’s jurisdiction,” said Hugh Shaw, current Secretary of States Representative (SOSREP), in a statement marking the 10-year anniversary of the disaster. 

After the ship was abandoned, the MSC Napoli was taken under tow towards Portland, UK, but as the disabled vessel approached the English coast there was a growing concern that the vessel could break up or sink. To prevent an even greater disaster, the SOSREP at the time, Robin Middleton, made the decision to intentionally beach the ship in Lyme Bay. A number of containers were lost overboard when the vessel listed heavily after beaching.

The MSC Napoli seen intentionally beached in Lyme Bay, England.
The MSC Napoli seen intentionally beached in Lyme Bay, England. Photo: UK MAIB

“Like with all shipping incidents that occur in our waters, we make every effort to protect the environment, and the NAPOLI was no different. The strategy was unusual in that we deliberately grounded the vessel in Lyme Bay to mitigate against a potentially far more serious situation. Failure to take this action would have led to the significant risk of the vessel sinking in the open seas of the English Channel, which could have led to long term environmental consequences as well as navigation safety issues. It is also important to remember that there was no loss of seafarers’ lives during the incident. Once the NAPOLI was in the shallow, sheltered waters of Lyme Bay, the salvage operation was infinitely more manageable,” said Hugh Shaw.

In the five months following the grounding, crews worked to remove the vessel’s fuel oil and any remaining container on deck. An attempt to tow the vessel off the beach was made on July 9, but it was quickly determined that the ship was in too poor of condition and it was re-beached 3 days later. Salvors instead opted to break the ship up on the beach using explosives. 

“From beginning to end the salvage of the NAPOLI took 924 days, and although lengthy, its conclusion set a benchmark in how we mitigate threats to the environment and the public when we conduct training exercises based on the potential of future incidents arising of this nature and scale. It was also a good example of multi-agency and international organisations liaising together. Thankfully, no UK shipping incident has come remotely close to this timescale in the 10 years since NAPOLI.”

An investigation into the accident conducted by the UK Marine Accident Investigation Branch determined that, among other contributing factors, the vessel’s hull did not have sufficient buckling strength.