The Chem P chemical tanker, which spent much of the weekend adrift on crashing waves amid gale-force winds, has been successfully towed out to Anchor Bay in Mellieħa, where it is expected to remain indefinitely.
Harbour Master David Bugeja, who has been coordinating the rescue operation, told Times of Malta that the team overseeing the situation identified a weather window on Monday morning where it was safe to start towing the vessel out.
By 2 pm, the vessel was just becoming visible from the shore in Mellieħa and by 3.30 pm the vessel arrived at what is officially known as bunker area six, an area just off Anchor Bay and close to the Popeye Village attraction.
“Once it’s settled, we’ll begin to assess the vessel in more depth and try to establish more details about what caused it to lose control,” Bugeja said.
“Then we’ll start the process to retrieve the anchor and Enemalta will be able to investigate whether any of its infrastructure has been damaged.”
Reports of an out-of-control tanker began on Saturday morning when footage of the Chem P showed it drifting dangerously close to the Baħar iċ-Ċagħaq coastline.
By 10.30 am, two tugboats were on the scene and fighting frantically to get the vessel tied to their lines and keep it from veering closer to the rocks.
Officials on the scene said that the vessel had likely lost engine power and had dropped anchor in an attempt to stay put, as the tug boats battled the merciless seas.
Bugeja said that the Chem P is roughly three times the size of Hephaestus, the 885-tonne vessel that ran aground in Qawra in 2018.
Why did the tanker get into trouble?
“Malta has a free anchorage site out in international waters which sees quite a number of vessels pass through,” Bugeja said.
“If there is a westerly wind, vessels will typically move to Libya to wait it out, but if it happens to blow an easterly wind, which this weekend's storm did, then the problems tend to come our way.
“The ship was in difficulty for a number of reasons. Including the weather, the sheer size of the vessel and the fact that there seemed to be engine problems, this all compounded and likely caused the vessel to drift,” he continued.
“If no action had been taken we could have unfortunately seen the possibility of the vessel becoming grounded and even perhaps the loss of life, the 20 souls on that ship.”
“But it seems like dropping anchor and the work of the tug boats saved the day in this case. There may have been some damage incurred but given the weather conditions this could not really be avoided.”
Bugeja confirmed that the vessel was not carrying any cargo, however, some 300 tonnes of fuel used to power the vessel were on board.
“Thankfully it was only gas oil, a light fuel similar to car diesel, but still, a spill would have been toxic and one wrong move could have caused it to spark or explode, so this was also a factor we were wary of.”
What happens next?
It is not clear how long the Chem P is expected to remain in Anchor Bay as all the involved parties, namely Transport Malta, Tug Malta and the vessel’s owners and insurance providers, work to sort out compensation and salvage claims for the rescue.
Enemalta is also expected to carry out further assessments of the underwater cables in the area and inspect for damage, another reason the vessel will likely be kept in Malta until the matter is put to bed.
The Malta-Sicily interconnector which connects Malta's power grid to the EU supply is in that area but officials have not confirmed if it was involved in any way in the incident.
“Hundreds of ships navigate close to Malta and we monitor continuously,” Bugeja said.
“As an island, we have certain vulnerabilities including the fact that we can be invaded at very short notice by vessels we know very little about.
“But if the weather is difficult and a vessel is out of control, it becomes even more difficult to exert control on the situation.”