Thursday, 16 February 2012

More than a hundred vessels stuck in ice as Sea of Azov freezes


Abnormally cold weather in Europe has resulted in the worst freezing in the Sea of Azov seen in the last three decades. The Emergency Agency of Ukraine reports that at least sixty ships have been stuck for almost two weeks in 30 cm thick ice with icepacks rising 1.2 metres high. One- the Captain Ivan Vikulov- has caught fire. Many are running out of food and fuel and around a hundred other vessels are clustered around the Kerch Strait that connects the Azov and Black seas. In addition, around seventy vessels are stuck in Russian ports alone, increasing the tally of vessels frozen in ice to well over a hundred. Ice covers almost the entire Azov sea- a 14,500 square mile northern extension of the Black Sea and with a maximum depth of only 14m, making it the shallowest sea on earth. Unconfirmed reports from Russia say that at least a hundred vessels have sent out distress signals, asking for immediate icebreaker assistance or the delivery of fuel and provisions. 

One of these vessels, the Turkish flagged Alaca-1, was deserted by the crew around Feb 7 after being holed in ice. The Maltese flagged 'Captain Ivan Vikulov' sent out a distress message after a superstructure fire on Feb 5; she had been stuck in heavy ice since late January while on a passage from Algeria to her discharge port. She was provided helicopter and icebreaker assistance and is now reportedly anchored about 50km off the coast- all her crew were either winched to safety or had to abandon their vessel and shift to the assisting icebreaker as the fire spread. 

Rescue helicopters- and four Russian, two Ukrainian  icebreakers and three ice classed tugs- are working round the clock to assist stranded seafarers, but their efforts are woefully inadequate for the dozens of ships that need urgent help scattered around a huge, frozen area. In addition, jurisdictional issues are hampering rescue operations, reports say, with Russian rescue agencies claiming that most of the vessels are trapped in an area controlled by the Ukraine. 

The Maritime Administration of Taganrog port, Russia, has started publishing a daily Azov Sea Situation Report last week, putting out an incomplete (since vessels to and from Ukraine are not included) list of vessels trapped by ice in the Azov Sea and Kerch Strait. Around seventy vessels are clustered around the latter; the good news is that many of these are not at risk of running out of supplies. 

With prevailing sub-zero temperatures that experts say will not improve for at least another week, agencies in the area say that the situation will almost certainly worsen as more and more ships run out of food and fuel or face other problems. The only way ships can be reached reasonably quickly is by helicopter, and the fear is that more crews will have to be evacuated from ships or from the ice as time passes. Many of the beleaguered vessels are coastal ships on short voyages that do not carry large quantities of provisions or fuel anyway, and they have already spent almost two weeks stuck in ice. 


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