Coastguard tugs unavailable as ferry hit by engine failure

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by Hazel Lewry

Yesterday as the UK government was announcing the extension of a lapsed contract for emergency tug and sea towing around Scotland’s coasts, a ferry carrying more than 100 people was left drifting four nautical miles west of Corsewall Point lighthouse after it suffered engine trouble on its way to Northern Ireland.

Corsewall Point is at the northern end of the Rhinns of Galloway.  The ferry was perhaps one hours drift time from the rocks.

The ferry, Stena Navigator, was carrying 70 passengers and had 47 crew on board.  She was travelling from Stranraer to Belfast when both engines suffered propulsion failures leaving her no option but to issue a distress call.

Clyde Coastguard, presently facing imminent closure, said it received a call from the Stena Navigator at 12.50am on Saturday.

The coastguard reported that two tugs not in coastguard service, Norton Cross and Willowgarth operated by the Svitzer company who deal in salvage and sea rescue went to the area with a view to towing the vessel to Belfast.  The assistance of the tugs was refused by the captain of the Stena Navigator as the ferry engineers worked on their mechanical systems.

The ferry managed to get one engine running and sailed over on half power, accompanied by the tugs.

Clyde Coastguard reported the vessel as arriving at around 4.30am with all passengers and crew believed to be safe and well.

The hole in Scotland’s emergency services was filled by a private company, specializing in salvage operations operating and responding on that understanding.

For the ferry captain or owners to accept assistance from the tugs under these circumstances without a previously agreed service contract or fee schedule would have left the ferry ownership open to exorbitant charges up to and including loss of ownership of the ferry itself.

These are not the conditions Scotland’s captains should be operating under, forced to watch approaching disaster and juggle the decision almost to the point of no return in the balance between protecting life or property and maintaining the ability to offer an ongoing service.

This time the ferry operator, its passengers and our nation were fortunate.