The French Navy, which coordinated the operations, mobilised significant means: first, from Brest, the tug Abeille Bourbon, rapidly onsite, and the oil spill response vessel (OSRV) Alcyon, more specifically in charge of recovering any containers fallen overboard. Another OSRV, the Argonaute, was on standby, ready for action.The MCA Emergency Towing Vessel the Anglian Princess was also mobilised.
Working in collaboration from the beginning of the incident, within the framework of the Mancheplan, the Secretary of State’s Representative for Maritime Salvage and Intervention (SOSREP) and the Préfet Maritime de l’Atlantique decided after an initial assessment that the vessel had to be towed. At 16:30, the ship managers Zodiac Maritime Agencies signed a salvage contract with a consortium of SMIT Salvage, Klyne Tugs and Les Abeilles.
The rough sea conditions (gusts of 80 km/h and 4 to 6 metre swell) made connecting the tow line a perilous operation, but seven hours after the call for assistance, towing began and the vessel was slowly towed (at around 2.5 knots) eastwards.
But where could this 275 metre-long giant with a 14 metre draught be taken? Due to the wind direction and swell, the Napoli could not be taken to Brest, and the French maritime authorities and the SOSREP had to find another more sheltered refuge site, in the Channel, equipped with sufficient port infrastructures, either on the French side (Cherbourg or Le Havre) or the UK side (Falmouth Roads, Lyme Bay). The least environmentally risky option was to tow the vessel to a place of refuge in UK waters. This solution was accepted by the UK authorities and the vessel was towed towards a sheltered location between Falmouth and Portland.
The following morning, on 19 January at 5:15 the tow line parted. The vessel drifted until around 10:00 when the tow line was reconnected to the Abeille Bourbon. This tug was then joined by another French Navy tug, from Cherbourg, the Abeille Liberté, to which another tow line was connected. The MSC Napoli was close to the Channel Islands in the zone under the responsibility of the French maritime authorities for the Channel and the North Sea.
The French Navy assessment team was transferred onto the ship by helicopter in the afternoon of the 19th to attempt to unblock the rudder and to assess the integrity of the Napoli. They reported two breaches, located on each site of the hull level with the bridge, and the flooding of the engine room. The port-side lateral tank was leaking and an oil slick 5 km long by 100 m wide marked the wake of the Napoli. On the 19th during the day, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency took charge of operations.
The environmental sensitivity of Lyme Bay and Weymouth Bay were studied by the UK-based Environment Group (EG). In the evening, as weather conditions were deteriorating, the decision was made to shelter the vessel in Lyme Bay, classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
On the morning of 20 January, the Salvage Master onboard the Napoli informed the SOSREP that the ship's condition had deteriorated further. It was listing to starboard and the stern was sitting deeper in the water; the vessel was at real risk of sinking. Given these conditions, the SOSREP decided to beach the vessel east of Sidmouth in Lyme Bay nearest to the coast. At high tide around midday, the MCA beached the Napoli on a sand bank at around 2 km from the seaside resort of Sidmouth, with a view to removing the fuel and securing the vessel before possibly towing it to Portland Port where its containers would be unloaded.
The Argonaute was present on site with 1,000 metres of boom in case of any pollution. A Marine Response Centre (MRC) was set up at Portland MRCC and the MV Valour was chartered to assist the Argonaute.
While the Alcyon was in search of a container spotted at sea by a French Customs plane, the naval means onsite, the UK Anglian Princess and the Argonaute from Brest, were reinforced by the regional response vessel Elan, from Cherbourg, equipped with a container towing system. The Abeille Liberté, the Argonaute and the Elan remained available to the UK authorities as part of the Anglo-French cooperation agreement, the Mancheplan. The private cable ship Ile de Bréhat, equipped for oil recovery, based in Brest and permanently contracted by the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA), was pre-equipped in case it was required.
On Monday 22, a temporary exclusion zone was set up within a radius of 3 miles around and an altitude of 2,000 feet above the vessel.