Be on the look out.  BOLO. This is a sea story that’s absolutely true, as all sea stories are truth. I am reading a published Canadian investigation that tells the unfortunate details leading to the loss of the dead ship tow Lyubov Orlova. She was a derelict Russian “cruise ship” on her last voyage from Canada to the Dominican Republic to be scrapped. The incident took place in December with winter weather. What could go wrong? Who could have seen it coming? All that was needed was to hire a tug and crew to drag the vessel to the scrapyard.

Enter the 50+ year old tug Charlene Hunt. The tug had been “welded” to the pier idle for almost a year before they fired her up for this winter North Atlantic tow.  The tug reportedly had a surveyor’s inspection for a “Bolivian Load Line.” Write in if you are a Bolivia Load Line expert. The surveyor found her not quite seaworthy and gave them a long list of deficiencies, including the need for an underwater hull inspection. Watertight bulkheads and seals weren’t tight. Wiring and lighting had problems too. Stability documents and navigational charts were missing or deficient. There was no follow up survey.   

On the way up to Canada the boat started taking on water. The Canadian Coast Guard had to respond with a SAR. There were fuel issues too. The Canadians were none too happy. They provided another long list of deficiencies, including hull and watertight integrity problems. The boat had cracked windows, fire pump problems and the man overboard boat wasn’t properly rigged. There were in excess of 40 deficiencies. The Charlene Hunt finally made it to St John’s in time for a very merry Christmas.

There they built the tow mostly out of stuff salvaged from the Lyubov Orlova, like old anchor chain and “jewelry.” The boat’s wire was too short to keep a good catenary for the long ocean tow. They merely welded some pad eyes on the tow to hook up the bridle. The emergency tow gear was questionable. None of the tow gear was ever tested and it only got once over, eyeball inspection.

A relief master came aboard who had never been on the boat before. He had little experience towing in North Atlantic winter weather. The deck crew mostly had only inland experience. The managers of the company were also light on experience ocean towing in the winter North Atlantic.

The voyage and tow planning was seriously inadequate according to the investigation. The relief master appeared not to know if the towing arrangement was safe for the voyage. Apparently he also didn’t have a full appreciation of the environmental conditions he could expect in January up north. Gales, freezing spray and 15-foot seas or worse were a typical day in those waters. 

They got underway with the ex-Russian dead ship in late January. After slightly more than a day underway the tow parted and the Lyubov Orlova was on the loose.  The effort to pick up the emergency tow rig failed because it was too rough. Then the Charlene Hunt again started flooding. This time it was a failed sea valve. A Canadian Coast Guard cutter arrived for another round of SAR assistance. Another tug arrived to try to pick up the tow. Finally a different salvage tug arrived and took over the tow. Eleven days into the trip, but only about 250 miles made good, the Lyubov Orlova broke loose for the second and last time. It was last seen drifting east heading towards Ireland. It has never been seen again. 

Who could have seen this coming? Study the investigation to save yourself from repeating this debacle. I’m sure you are smarter than that. Some say the Lyubov Orlova sank but it could now be the new Flying Dutchman. Be On the Look Out. BOLO!

Sail Safe!

A collection of stories from guest authors.