The two new tugs at Sullom Voe have been removed from service indefinitely after a potentially disastrous collision between the Solan and the oil tanker Loch Rannoch on Tuesday night.
The £7 million council tug was leading the empty Schiehallion oilfield shuttle tanker out past Jetty 4 and was preparing to slip her rope when without warning she lost controls and propulsion. She was struck by the tanker doing about five knots and “clattered” down her side with her rope still attached.
Luckily the tug’s systems suddenly resumed operation and the skipper regained control. The Loch Rannoch was also able to slow down rapidly.
The cause of the failure remains a mystery. It is understood the rubber fenders of the 40-metre Solan prevented her suffering serious damage and none of the four crewmen were injured.
A senior marine source at the port said of the collision: “That’s your worst nightmare on a tug! It’s as serious as it gets.”
He added: “This, in all seriousness, could have been a disaster.”
If it had happened a few minutes earlier when the Solan was a bit further ahead of the tanker the collision would have had much greater momentum, he said. If it had been a normal crude tanker being brought into the port at greater speed, he said: “We could have been looking at four funerals.”
The Spanish-built Solan and sister tug Bonxie were immediately suspended from service and remain tied up at the pier at Sella Ness. The council had already decided to have modifications carried out when they go into drydock due to a string of problems with reliability and lack of control since their arrival nearly a year ago.
As the marine source said: “The boys’ confidence is shot to hell. This is just the last straw – the final incident to prove that there are serious problems with these tugs.”
Another senior marine source confirmed the details of the collision, describing it as the most serious of a number of incidents involving the new tugs. Fortunately it had been a fine night and the speed of the tanker was low because there is such doubt about the reliability of the new tugs.
Shetland Islands Council’s harbour board chairman Robert Henderson was unaware of the incident when contacted today. But he said he was obviously disappointed to hear about the problem. After making some inquiries he confirmed that an investigation was taking place at Sella Ness to try to discover the cause of the problem, whether it was human error or vessel error.
“You always have to be concerned if some tool that you have is not working to the standard that you would like it to work to,” he said.
The tugs were taken out of service as a precautionary measure, he was told. He was not sure whether they would return to duty once the investigation was completed, and any modifications done, or whether they would remain out of action until after their first annual inspection.
This afternoon head of port operations Roger Moore released a statement confirming the incident and that the Solan had come “into contact with the bow of the Loch Rannoch”. He said there was no report of injury, damage or pollution.
“An investigation is under way and the Marine Accident Investigation Branch has been informed. At present there is no indication of mechanical failure. The Solan and Bonxie have been removed from service while the investigation is under way.”
Told about the incident, former director of marine operations Captain George Sutherland said: “I’m disappointed to hear what has happened but pleased to hear that some action is being taken to sort it out.”
The two 8,150 horsepower tugs were built at the Unión Naval Valencia yard in Valencia. They were nearly a year late in being delivered and were still not in full service in handling tankers when they were removed from service on Tuesday night.
Even before they left the yard there were problems getting the tugs to steer in a straight line and their exhausts did not function properly. In service there have been a number of issues including with winches and the vessels’ handling at speed.
However, assurances were given to councillors that the problems were being ironed out and the tugs were fit for purpose.
But in August the Solan lost power in one of her engines as she was about to go alongside a tanker and she had to be replaced by one of the port’s older tugs.