Maersk vessels sunk in last december have collided continuously for 36 hours

Maersk Searcher & Shipper

The two Maersk vessels which sank off the coast of France shortly before new year, collided continuously for up to 36 hours and were severly damaged for at least one day before the dramatic shipwreck.

Despite this, the crew discovered the gravity of the situation just ten minutes before the first ship began to sink.

A report from the Danish Maritime Accident Investigation Board casts a new light over the events on the night between December 21 and December 22, when Maersk Searcher and Maersk Shipper sank, as they were towed by a third vessel, Maersk Battler, on the way to scrapping in Turkey.

In the report, the Danish Maritime Accident Investigation Board concludes that there are several reasons for the accident, and that no one single explanation applies. However, it is clear that ship owner did not carry out a sufficient risk evaluation.

The report has also revealed several details in the journey which ultimately ended with the two vessels, loaded with oil, sinking to the ocean floor near a maritime natural park in French waters.

Problems began December 20

Maersk Searcher and Maersk Shipper departed from Fredericia, Denmark, on December 12 last year. The two unmanned vessels were moored to each other and were towed by a third vessel, Maersk Battler.

The destination was a Turkish shipyard, where Maersk Group’s offshore company, Maersk Supply Service, had sold them for scrapping.

Prior to departure, the company had conducted a risk assessment. The expectation was that the two ships would move as one in the water because they were moored. However, this did not prove to be the case.

When the vessels were on the way through the English Channel on December 20, rough seas caused the ships to come into direct contact with one another. The crew also noted that the only three fenders protecting the vessels had disappeared.

The captain decided to inspect the damage when the wind died down. However, it was not perceived as a problem that the vessels were subjected to minor damage as they were both poised for scrapping.

Contacted by concerned ship radio

Weather conditions worsened overnight and when the crew awoke on December 21, it observed that the ships continued to roll and list towards each other, Maersk Searcher in particular.


There were approximately 192 m3 of oil and oil byproducts on board Maersk Searcher and Maersk Shipper.

Fuel oil: 55 m3

Carbon hybrid byproducts: 44 m3

Waste oil: 42 m3

Diesel oil: 28 m3

Water with diesel oil: 23 m3

One curious detail is that Maersk Battler received a call from ship radio Ushant Radio, which had been informed by other vessels that Maersk Battler had been involved in an accident.

Vessels got severely damaged

The surprised captain contacted Maersk Supply Service to inform that the moored vessels were fine, although as expected they had been subjected to contact damage above the water line.

According to the accident report, at the time the vessels were already severely damaged.

No way back

However the crew did not grasp the seriousness of the situation until late into the night of December 21, approximately a day and a half after the vessels began to collide.

After a day where the vessels continued to roll and list towards each other, a crew member on the bridge discovered that Maersk Searcher was lying lower in the water and that the vessel was now listing heavily.

At 23.25, he informed the captain, who immediately realized that the ship was about to capsize. Ten minutes later, Maersk Searcher, which was still moored to Maersk Shipper, went down.

Maersk Searcher (to the left) sank shortly after midnight, December 22. Image: private photo / Danish Maritime Accident Investigation Board

The crew were called to the bridge, where it emerged that Maersk Searcher would capsize and pull Maersk Shipper down with it. However, the captain evaluated that there was no risk that Maersk Battler would be pulled down with them, and therefore opted to sail the vessels away from the trafficked strait were they found themselves.

At 00.22, Maersk Searcher sank and a few minutes later Maersk Shipper capsized. Shortly after six in the morning, Maersk Shipper sank. Approximately a quarter of an hour later, Maersk Battler freed itself from the towage by going forward from the main engines to break the main towing wire.

Maersk Battler was since scrapped in Aliaga in Turkey on January 5.

Minister entered the case

It is not yet known what will happen with the two vessels lying on the ocean floor near the Nature Maritime Park d’Irois.

As ShippingWatch has previously reported, the accident garnered a great deal of attention in France, due to the fact that the two vessels contain a larger amount of oil and residues which may be necessary to pump away.

French environment minister Ségolène Royal has since entered the case, and in January she sent a letter to the Danish Minister for Industry, Brian Mikkelsen.

Maersk Supply Service will now continuously monitor whether the oil is being discharged from the ships in the coming years. The carrier has announced in a press release that it has updated its security procedures in a number of areas.

Source: Niklas Krigslund & Lena Rutkowski / ShippingWatch

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