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Grande America sinks in the Bay of Biscay

On 10th March 2019, a fire broke out aboard the Italian merchant ship. The vessel sank on 12th March.

On 16/04/2019,

Oil samples taken on the shore of La Faute-sur-Mer arrived at Cedre and were analysed. The tests showed that this oil was not from the Grande America.

On 12/04/2019,

Underwater investigations of the wreck continued off La Rochelle from the specialised Norwegian vessel Island Pride equipped with a ROV. Inspections began on the Grande America on 1st April and showed that the wreck was intact, upright and sitting on sandy sediment, with its stern section buried several metres deep.

Aerial observations continued and the results of overflights conducted over the past week showed a few areas of light sheen at the surface above the wreck. This sheen disappeared with agitation and could not be recovered by the Argonaute which was then sent back to the port of Brest.

The aircraft mobilised by the French Navy and French customs continued to monitor the spill area, and EMSA’s CleanSeaNet satellite system was also used to check for any significant upwellings of oil from the wreck.

There is still a risk of tarballs being washed up on the French coastline, but widespread strandings are now no longer likely.

On 03/04/2019,

The spill response, which began on Tuesday 12th March, entered a new phase. The situation shifted from an emergency response to a more long term vigilant management of the consequences of this sinking incident. The spill response set-up is therefore being adapted in accordance with the French maritime emergency contingency plan.

For the past two days, despite calm seas and good visibility in the Bay of Biscay until 2nd April, satellite and aerial observations were unable to locate any significant pollution downwind and downcurrent of the wreck. This does not mean that these slicks have entirely disappeared, but it does mean that no response actions can be implemented on them. No spill response vessels were therefore deployed in this area.

As for the situation above the wreck, small quantities of pollutant continue to rise to the surface and are being treated.

Despite the resources and efforts deployed for the past 3 weeks, not all the pollutant spilt has been able to be recovered. Tarballs are therefore liable to sporadically wash up on the coastline.

Vigilance is therefore called for and particular attention will be paid to any changes in the situation over the coming weeks. The response set-up at sea remains on alert along France’s Atlantic coastline.

Currently, six drifting containers, life rafts and several tens of tonnes of solidified heavy fuel oil as well as several hundred tonnes of oily water have been recovered at sea and transported to the port of La Rochalle to be treated by a specialised company contracted by the shipowner.

A preliminary enquiry was opened by Brest’s Chief Prosecutor and a technical investigation is currently being conducted by the Italian Marine Casualty Investigation Body working in collaboration with the French Marine Accident Investigation Office (BEA Mer).


On 31st March,

After having located the Grande America, the Island Pride deployed its ROV to begin inspection of the wreck.

Small quantities of oil were still observed above the wreck and continued to be treated.

The latest satellite and aerial observations did not identify any new areas of contamination. Downwind and downcurrent of the wreck, the area of contamination reported on the 30th has been treated.


On 30th March,

Thanks to favourable weather conditions, response operations continued.

The small quantities of pollutant which continued to rise to the surface and could be observed above the wreck were being treated by the VN Partisan.

A small area of oil was located south of the leading edge of the pollution, thanks to observations by the French Navy’s Falcon 50 plane and was being treated by vessels operating in the area.

The Island Pride arrived on site in the morning.


On 29th March,

Following various stop-offs in the port of La Rochelle for logistical reasons mid-week and with the improved weather forecast, the vessels involved in spill response were now as follows:

- the VN Sapeur, TSM Kermor, Ria de Vigo and Don Inda at the leading edge of the spill (the Argonaute, still in La Rochelle, was to join them the following day);
- the VN Partisan above the wreck, where small quantities of oil continued to rise to the surface.

The Island Pride, a vessel chartered by the shipowner of the Grande America, was expected to arrive in the area to relocate the wreck and inspect it with a ROV.


On 26th and 27th March,

Weather conditions hampered response operations at sea, due to a cross sea, with 2 m-high waves and wind speeds of up to 45 km/h. Nevertheless, certain specialised vessels remained in the area above the wreck, while others were positioned at the front edge of the initial spill which was drifting increasingly southwards in the Bay of Biscay, towards the Spanish coasts. The French departments whose shorelines are liable to be oiled continued to prepare for the pollution. Overflights and satellite observation by EMSA did lead to the identification of any new slicks or lost containers.


On 24th and 25th March,

On the 24th, weather conditions in the area deteriorated, making response operations at sea more challenging than on previous days. The container of goods recovered on the 23rd arrived in La Rochelle.

On the 25th, response operations at sea were suspended. The vessels involved in the response headed to the port of La Rochelle, where they unloaded the oil recovered at sea and oiled equipment.

During aerial surveys conducted on the 24th and 25th, no lost containers were located and no oil drifting southwards in the Bay of Biscay was observed.

In a press release issued on 23rd March, the authorities in the Landes area reported two oiled birds, one of which died, found on the shores of Hendaye and Messanges. Samples of the oil taken from the birds were analysed by Cedre. The results confirmed that this oil was indeed that of the Grande America.


On 22nd and 23rd March,

Thanks to favourable weather conditions, response operations at sea continued. Firstly, where the Grande America sank, a leak continued to rise from the wreck and spread out at the sea surface. The joint work of different vessels in the area – three French tugs with support from the Argonaute and two Spanish tugs – proved effective.

Secondly, operations continued to recover the initial spill, guided by aerial observation flights. Two French response vessels were called in to recover the oil which had formed small scattered slicks at the water surface, drifting south-eastwards of where the vessel sank.

Two containers were detected during overflights by the maritime surveillance plane and the French Navy helicopter. A container of non-hazardous goods, towed by the barge chartered by the shipowner, arrived in La Rochelle on 22nd March. Meanwhile, two vessels chartered by the shipowner began to recover containers lost at sea. On the 23rd, a container of non-hazardous goods was towed to La Rochelle and a life raft was recovered.


















On 21st March,

Spill response operations continued under favourable weather conditions in the Bay of Biscay above the wreck as well as to the south-east to relocate the initial spill which had drifted in that direction. The work vessel TSM Dora, chartered by the shipowner, joined the response set-up. Several overflights were conducted that day.

Three containers were recovered by vessels chartered by the shipowner. These containers, which contained food products, were towed to La Rochelle. Next week, a specialised vessel equipped with a ROV (Remotely Operated underwater Vehicle) is due to arrive to inspect the wreck.

Based on the sea and weather conditions in the centre of the Bay of Biscay, the position of the oil patches in relation to the coast and the results of modelling provided by the drift committee, it appeared very unlikely at this point that oil would reach the French coastline before 10 days’ time.

In the afternoon, the Maritime Prefect chaired a meeting, at the Maritime Prefecture in Brest, with representatives of various environmental associations to review the situation involving the Grande America. Furthermore, at the request of the association Robin des Bois, he provided a list of the cargo the sunken vessel was carrying. This list comprises 2,100 vehicles, 1,050 tonnes of dangerous goods  including 16 different hazardous substances and 320 containers of other goods (paper, foodstuffs, steel, non-hazardous chemicals, fertilisers, etc.).


On 20th March,

The pollution response set-up was identical to that in place the previous day. The weather conditions were conducive to oil recovery operations at sea, which continued to make progress. A container of non-hazardous goods was recovered by the shipowner.





On 19th March,

With a marked improvement in weather conditions from previous days, booms were able to be deployed and oil contained and recovered by pumping. Two Spanish tugs Alonso de Chaves and Maria de Maetzu were in the incident area, directly above the wreck, and were working continuously with the tugs VN Partisan and TSM Kermor. The response vessels ArgonauteVN SapeurRhône and Ria de Vigo, were focusing on the fuel oil that escaped from the Grande America from 13th March and had drifted towards the south-east of the Bay of Biscay. The oil was in the form of small clusters (between 50 and 100 cm) and a lot of sheen at the sea surface.

Several overflights were conducted by the French Navy plan and a plane chartered by the shipowner. Five floating containers and two rubber boats were spotted and were subsequently recovered by the shipowner in cooperation with the French authorities. A life raft retrieved by the vessel Maxiplon, chartered by the Grimaldi Group, was taken to Île d’Yeu.




On 18th March,

The weather conditions began to improve, response operations continued with the deployment of containment booms and trawl systems. In the area above the wreck, sheen and scattered clusters of heavy fuel oil could be seen at the surface.

The oil slicks detected at the beginning of the incident had drifted south-eastwards.

The shipowner, who has chartered a tug, recovered a floating container and towed it to La Rochelle. This container did not contain hazardous substances, but rather a cargo of chips (Pringles). The shipowner was also set to recover one of the two lifeboats, drifting around 35 km from the shore.





On 17th March,

The weather conditions remained similar to the day before but the sea was rougher with 4 m-high waves and wind speeds of 55 to 65 km/h. Despite these conditions, response operations at sea continued. The response vessels already on site were joined by the tug TSM Kermor, chartered by the French authorities (Maritime Prefecture for the Atlantic). Aerial surveys conducted on this day by the French Navy’s Falcon 50 maritime surveillance plane confirmed that a leak of oil was still present directly above the wreck.

The latest estimations by the slick drift committee confirmed the risk of the oil reaching the coast in the short term, but the French shores should not be affected in the coming week.


On 16th March,

Spill response operations continued, despite challenging weather conditions, rough seas with 3 m high waves and wind speeds of 20-30 km/hour. The response set-up from the previous day remained in place, pending the arrival of the Spanish tug.

The oil slick detected the previous day was still around 325 km from the French coast, but the two slicks spotted on the 14th March could not be located.




On 15th March,

The weather conditions were still poor in the area where the Grande America sank. The two oil slicks identified the previous day could therefore not be spotted during aerial surveys conducted from the French Navy’s maritime surveillance Falcon 50 plane. A new compact-looking oil slick, 4.5 km long by 500 m wide, was detected near to the wreck confirming the oil leak from the wreck.

Despite the sea state, spill response operations began that afternoon. The spill response set-up is currently as follows:

•           Response vessels Argonaute and VN Sapeur chartered by French Navy

•           VN Partisan chartered by EMSA

•           French Navy’s support and assistance vessel Rhône 

Two floating containers, one around 30 km north-east of the Grande America, the other 90 km to the east, were spotted and the shipowner organised their recovery, in cooperation with the maritime authorities.

The Biscaye Plan was activated and through this cooperation between France and Spain, a Spanish tug fitted with spill response equipment is scheduled to arrive at the beginning of next week.

Samples of bunker fuel arrived at Cedre and tests are currently underway in the Polludrome® to determine its weathering over the coming days and measure the proportion of fuel that is liable to disperse, evaporate, spread at the surface and emulsify. The purpose of these tests is to help define an appropriate strategy for response at sea, as well as on the shoreline if the oil reaches the coast.

More information:




On 14th March, 

During an overflight by the French Navy surveillance plane, two distinct slicks were identified, some 315 km (195 miles) from the coast, to the west of La Rochelle. One of the slicks, approximately 13 km long by 7 km wide, was located above the wreck, while the other, around 9 km long by 7 km wide, appeared less compact than the first. The two slicks were located around 20 km apart.

Additional spill response equipment was en route to supplement the existing equipment positioned in the incident area, which had been placed on pre-alert at the very onset of the incident. However, due to adverse weather conditions, spill response operations could not be initiated. The response at-sea is coordinated onsite by the director of the French Navy Centre of Practical Expertise in Pollution Response CEPPOL, from the Argonaute, in collaboration with the crisis centre at the Maritime Prefecture for the Atlantic in Brest. Daily overflights are conducted by the French Navy to monitor the spill. The drift committee, made up of experts in the fields of meteorology, oceanography, the behaviour of petroleum products and marine pollution response, coordinated by the Maritime Prefecture for the Atlantic, confirmed the risk of shoreline pollution, however the potentially affected shores would not be known until a few days later. Certain areas (Gironde and Charente-Maritime) have anticipated the pollution risk and prepared for possible strandings of oil.

The French Minister for the Ecological and Inclusive Transition, François de Rugy, visited Brest to review the situation generated by the sunken ship and the spill response resources deployed.

The European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA), at the request of the Maritime Prefect, is providing assistance through satellite monitoring to detect oil slicks at sea.


On 13th March,

An oil slick around 10 km long and 1 km wide was observed by the maritime patrol aircraft. The Maritime Prefect for the Atlantic ordered the pollution response vessel Argonaute to be sent onsite and to begin spill response operations.


On 12th March,

Fire-fighting operations were suspended, partly as they had proven unsuccessful in extinguishing the fire blazing inside the Grande America, and partly due to the fact that the vessel was listing alarmingly to the right. Around ten containers fell overboard. The ship was drifting slowly eastwards and was now some 350 km (215 miles) from the French shoreline. An overflight of the ship by the French Navy’s assessment and response team provided the maritime authorities with information on its situation. The weather conditions deteriorated significantly over the following 48 hours, limiting response possibilities. At around 3:30 pm, the ship sank in waters 4,600 m deep, some 350 km (215 miles) off Oléron island, with approximately 2,200 tonnes of fuel in its bunkers.

The shipowner, reacting to the order issued by the Maritime Prefect, contracted salvage company ARDENT which chartered 2 tugs, one of which quickly arrived in the area and the second on the 13th.




On 11th March,

An emergency warning was sent out to ships in the area to alert them as to the presence of the Grande America. At around 10 am, the Abeille Bourbon arrived on site and began operations to extinguish the raging blaze. All the personnel and equipment mobilised by the State focused on fire-fighting.

The Maritime Prefect for the Atlantic ordered the shipowner, Grimaldi Group, to take all the necessary measures to put a stop to the hazardous situation caused by the Grande America in the French Exclusive Economic Zone. In accordance with the provisions for assistance to a vessel in distress, the Maritime Prefect decided to elevate the French maritime emergency response system (ORSEC) status to level 3, which meant setting up a crisis management team within the crisis command centre at the Maritime Prefecture for the Atlantic. Cedre joined this team.



On 10th March,

The Grande America, bound for Casablanca (Morocco) from Hamburg (Germany), was around 260 km (160 miles) off the French coast, to the south-west of Brittany, when a fire broke out at around 8 pm, but was soon brought under control. The ship was transporting 365 containers on its decks, 45 of which contained hazardous substances, as well as 2,000 vehicles (cars, trucks, trailers, heavy-duty vehicles) on its garage decks. The situation was reported to MRCC Étel and, shortly before midnight, the ship’s captain informed the maritime authorities that the situation onboard had worsened. The fire had broken out again and several containers were ablaze.

The French Maritime Prefect ordered the emergency assistance and salvage tug Abeille Bourbon to be sent on site. Meanwhile, at around 2 am, the captain abandoned his ship with the 25 crew members and the single passenger onboard. The weather conditions were harsh. Coordinated by the MRCC Étel, the British Royal Navy frigate HMS Argyll saved all 27 people from around 4 am.



The information presented here will be updated as the situation unfolds.


Press releases from the Maritime Prefecture for the Atlantic (French only)

Press releases from the Prefecture for Gironde (French only)

Press releases from the Charente-Maritime department (French only)

Press releases from the Prefecture for Charente-Maritime (French only)

Press releases from the Prefecture for Landes (French only)


Further information:

The "Local Authorities' Guide: What to do in the event of a spill" is intended to help decision-makers, and in particular local authorities, to deal with such events (in French).

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