Update on Ocean Explorer 14/09/2023: the vessel has been free since this morning, with the help of the trawler Tarajoq, after soft ungrounded operations (see below).
An incident that is so far benign is challenging the Danish rescue system in eastern Greenland, a classic navigational error in poorly hydrographed areas.
Last Monday, the luxury cruise ship Ocean Explorer belonging to the Aurora Expedition cruise line grounded at Alpefjord, in a National Park in north-east Greenland.
On board, between 170 and 206 passengers, depending on the source, and 90 crew members are safe and sound, the ship is grounded, but remains stable.
Unstable seabed poorly charted
“She ran aground on the moraine of the glacier, an area of the fjord that is probably poorly charted,” notes Hervé Baudu, a French polar navigation expert and co-editor of the Code Polaire. The latter document recommends sailing with the utmost caution in poorly hydrographed areas.
Fjord bottoms can be very unstable in the Arctic. “We can imagine that sediment was transferred between the glacier and the fjord, leading to the accumulation of sediments in the form of prodeltas (advanced delta zone below the surface of the water) that do not appear on bathymetric maps, as recent deposits are often fluctuating,” notes Agnès Balzer, a sedimentologist with the French National Committee for Arctic and Antarctic Research.
When help was requested, the Danish military vessel Knud Rasmussen was 1,200 nautical miles away. It will therefore not be able to arrive at the scene of the grounding until Friday morning.
A number of nearby cruise ships have been asked to remain in the area. Their support may be required in the event of an evacuation.
The rescue operation was led by the Joint Arctic Command of the Danish armed forces based in Nuuk. Depending on how the situation develops, the Icelandic coastguard may also need to provide assistance.
The Air Force Challenger aircraft flew over the vessel on Tuesday and reports the absence of pollution as well as images of the incident. “However, in this specific situation, we do not see any immediate danger to human life.”, said Commander Brian Jensen.
Ocean Explorer flies the Bahamian flag and is owned by the Norwegian Ulstein Group. She measures 104.4 meters with a draught of 5.3 meters. “Her PC6 1A ice hull is designed for summer cruising, not ice-breaking,” explains Hervé Baudu.
This morning, the Greenland trawler Tarajoq’ s beacon signaled its presence close to the vessel. “It is likely to be able to provide assistance,” he adds.
The high tide could help the ship to free itself, but the last three tides have not allowed it to extricate itself. At noon today, the tide will be 1.1 metres above zero at Ittoqqortoormiit.
This kind of incident has happened before, as in 2013 when Ponant’s Soléal grounded in the Siberian fjord of Penkigney.
It had been possible to carry out the refloating operation “by combining ballasting with the use of anchors (anchored using the boats on board), the engine and the bow thruster by ‘digging’ a hole by moving the hull to make the vessel refloat,” reported the (French) Bureau d’enquêtes sur les événements de mer in August 2014.
The report highlighted “a state of over-confidence in the only means of navigation” and in the end advised the Ponant company “to continue the additional training, already initiated, for its officers sailing in the polar regions, in particular with the help of a simulator.”
It also stated: “the soft ungrounding operation was skilfully carried out”. Let’s hope the same goes for the Ocean Explorer.
Camille Lin, PolarJournal
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