Detained ships are smuggled from Cornish port
Two tugs detained in the Westcountry and condemned as unseaworthy have been smuggled out of port in the dead of night.
An investigation has been launched after the sudden disappearance of the two 151-tonne former Ministry of Defence (MoD) "dog class" boats, which are now thought to be bound for Africa. The 70ft tugs – Juliette Pride 1 and 2 – had been tied up at Newlyn, in West Cornwall, after major defects were found by surveyors from the Maritime and Coastguard Agency(MCA).
But the ships, which fly the flag of Tanzania and are owned by a Nigerian oil trader, somehow managed to slip unseen from the port early on Sunday.
MCA officials privately fear the boats may sink en route and there are concerns for the welfare of the Nigerian crew and any seafarers who may be called to their aid should they encounter problems.
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"The tugs are in an appalling state," one source told the Western Morning News. "There's a good chance they won't make it to Africa and could pose a pollution risk on the European coast."
The MCA confirmed yesterday that the boats had "jumped detention" but admitted there was little it could do once the ships had left UK jurisdiction and entered international waters.
Spokesman Jo Rawlings said the main priority was safety, adding: "We prohibited them from setting sail but once they hit international waters it is tricky to get them back. Detention orders are only issued when vessels are deemed unsafe – it could be structural or an inability to deal with certain weather conditions or an emergency – so if they are out there now it is a concern as lives may be put at risk."
The MCA orders are thought to be the first in the region since the beam trawler Grietje was sanctioned in Devon, becoming a rusting eyesore in Brixham's picturesque harbour until it was bought by a diving company in 2011.
The missing boats are thought to have had their tracking systems turned off and Falmouth Coastguard has been unable to find a radar trace.
HMS Severn, which was reportedly in the area between 4am and 5am, saw nothing.
Jim Portus, leader of the South Western Fish Producers' Organisation, said as an ex-seafarer he "feared for the safety" of the tug crews and claimed the "escape" called into question officials' powers and security measures.
"The MCA don't arrest vessels lightly and they would not have just had small defects," he added. "You just have to hope they arrive safely, though it may be more by luck than judgment – unfortunately there are lots of vessels out there that may be defective just as there are many cars on the road which are potential death traps."
Newlyn harbour master Andrew Munson said the two boats had been "just tied up like everybody else".
He said the Nigerian crew members, who had been repairing defects, had given him no indication they planned to leave.
"As I understand it, the owner has got four of these dog class tugs which he uses in his tanker business," he added.
"Structurally, they were sound – they just had defects which didn't conform with the regulations. They were here on Saturday and then first thing Sunday morning they were gone – normally out of courtesy you let the harbour authority know, but they may have different ways of working in their country."