BERTRAND (Bordeaux) • Maritime experts yesterday successfully managed to tow a stricken cargo ship away from France and prevented it from crashing into the country's picturesque Atlantic coast.
Local maritime authorities said a Spanish tugboat had successfully been connected to the Modern Express, which was tilting heavily, "and managed to pivot it, point it towards the open sea and begin towing it".
The Panamanian-registered ship was only 44km from the French coast when the authorities launched a final bid to attach a tow line and stop it from hitting the coast.
Experts from Dutch company Smit Salvage, which specialises in helping ships in distress, were dramatically lowered by helicopter onto the vessel as it tilted at 40 to 50 degrees while buffeted by large waves.
The ship's crew sent a distress signal last Tuesday after the vessel listed strongly to one side, probably due to its cargo coming loose in the hull. The 22-member crew were evacuated by helicopter as they clung to the ship.
Three earlier efforts to attach the tow line failed, with the cable snapping on Saturday due to the movement of the vessels in the rough seas.
"The difficulty is a combination of several things: the wind, the swell and the angle of the boat which is like climbing a mountain, but which is moving," a spokesman for Smit Salvage said over the weekend.
On Sunday, heavy winds and waves of nearly 6m high prevented further rescue efforts.
The authorities had said earlier that if the vessel could be towed, it would likely be taken to a port on the northern coast of Spain.
The Modern Express was carrying diggers and 3,600 tonnes of timber from Gabon in west Africa to a port in Normandy, France.
If the towing operation had failed, it would likely have crashed into the coastline of the Bay of Arcachon, where it would have been dismantled or cut up.
Around 300 tonnes of fuel remain in its tanks, but the French authorities said there was a limited risk of pollution in the event of a crash.
But a clean-up vessel was at the scene just in case.
The French coastline was hit hard in 2002 by the sinking of the Bahamian-flagged oil tanker Prestige off the coast of Spain, which was carrying 77,000 tonnes of fuel. The fuel polluted some 1,000km of French and Spanish coastlines.