by Vincent Groizeleau. French version (Un patrouilleur vénézuélien veut arraisonner un paquebot et coule après l’avoir abordé) published online on 3 April 2020. Translated and adapted by Steve Dyson.
Here’s an amazing news story. Had it been reported 24 hours earlier, readers would almost certainly have assumed it was an April fool’s joke. On 30 March, the Naiguatá, an 80-metre offshore patrol vessel inducted into the Venezuelan coast guard in 2012, sank after attempting to divert the cruise ship RCGS Resolute. The Resolute, previously the Hanseatic, was built in Finland in 1991 for German company Hapag-Lloyd Cruises. In late 2018 the ship – with accommodation for 184 passengers and a displacement of 8400gt for a length of 122.8m – was sold to Columbia Cruise Services and registered in Portugal for cruises to destinations that include Antarctica thanks to its high-strength hull and ice classification; a detail that will prove important as the story unfolds.
Expedition cruise vessel RCGS Resolute previously the Hanseatic (© Michel Floch)
Shipowner describes OPV’s extraordinary behaviour
The Resolute left Buenos Aires for the Dutch Caribbean island of Curaçao on 5 March with 32 crew and no passengers aboard. On 30 March, the ship was in international waters, around 13.3nm off the Venezuelan island of Tortuga. The ship had been drifting for one day off the island to conduct routine engine maintenance on its idle voyage to Willemstad, Curaçao. While maintenance was being performed on the starboard engine, the port engine was on standby to maintain a safe distance from the island, says the statement released by Columbia Cruise Services. Shortly after midnight, the vessel was approached by an armed Venezuelan OPV which queried the Resolute’s intentions by radio and ordered the master to follow it to Puerto Moreno on Margarita island. As the Resolute was in international waters, the master wanted to reconfirm the request as it called for a significant deviation from the scheduled route. While the master was in contact with his head office, gunshots were fired and, shortly after, the OPV approached the Resolute’s starboard side at speed and an angle of 135°, purposely colliding with it. The OPV then rammed the starboard bow in an apparent attempt to turn the ship’s heading towards Venezuelan territorial waters.
Hull ripped open by ice-class bulb
While the Resolute sustained only minor damage and remained perfectly seaworthy, the manoeuvre proved disastrous for the Naiguatá. The OPV began to sink after suffering what appeared to be serious damage. The Resolute’s ice-strengthened bulbous bow had apparently ripped through the OPV’s comparatively thin hull plating, leaving it no chance whatsoever. Ready to provide support at any time, the Resolute contacted the Curaçao Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre and remained on the scene for over an hour. All attempts to contact those on board the OPV went unanswered, says the Columbia Cruise Services statement.
No further assistance being required, the MRCC gave the Resolute permission to proceed to Willemstad where it arrived on 31 March.
Maduro alleges “aggression”
The Venezuelan authorities have confirmed that the Naiguatá could not be saved and sank as a result of extensive flooding. Although we do not know if there were any casualties, the crew probably abandoned the vessel before it went down. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has requested the cooperation of the Curaçao authorities for a full investigation while blaming the accident on the cruise vessel, describing its behaviour as “an act of aggression and piracy”. Caracas says that the Naiguatá set sail in response to an alert when RCGS Resolute entered Venezuelan waters. Meanwhile the government made an extravagant claim regarding the cruise ship’s presence off its coast: “the authorities do not rule out the possibility that the vessel was carrying mercenaries planning to attack Venezuelan military bases following a sea-based disembarkation”.
Second Navantia-built ship sunk by a commercial vessel
The Naiguatá was among the Venezuelan coast guard’s largest and most recent vessels. It was one of four BVL-type offshore patrol vessels ordered from Spanish shipbuilder Navantia in 2005. The ship was built at Navantia’s Puerto Real yard near Cadiz along with sisterships Guaicamacuto and Yaviré; all three being delivered in 2011 and 2012. The fourth in the series, the Comandante Eterno Hugo Chávez, was built by Venezuela’s Dianca de Puertocaballo shipyard with Navantia’s technical assistance and launched in 2014. BVL-type vessels are 79.9m long for a breadth of 11.8m and a displacement of 1453t. They carry a crew of 40 and are armed with a 76mm gun in a forward turret, a 35mm gun and machineguns.
Fate sometimes plays a cruel hand. The Naiguatá is the second Navantia-built ship to sink following a collision with a commercial vessel in less than 18 months. The Norwegian Navy’s Helge Ingstad sank on 8 November 2018 in a fjord north of Bergen following a nighttime collision with the Sola TS, a Greek oil tanker. If we broaden the horizon to collisions involving US Navy warships – namely USS Fitzgerald and USS John McCain in 2017 – it would appear that, over the last few years, commercial vessels have posed a bigger threat to warships than anything else.
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