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Grande America

Grande America
Accident date
Accident area
Bay of Biscay
Spill area
Cause of spill
Product transported
Vehicles, 365 containers
Quantity transported
2,200 t (bunker fuel)
Nature of pollutant
IFO 380 and containers
Built date
214 m
32 m
Grimaldi Deep Sea
Grimaldi Group
P&I Club
The North of England Protecting & Indemnity Association Ltd
Classification society
RINA Services
IMO number

The incident

On 10th March 2019, the roll-on/roll-off container ship Grande America, bound for Casablanca (Morocco) from Hamburg (Germany), suffered major damage.

The ship had 27 people onboard: 26 crew members and one passenger. The cargo comprised 2,100 vehicles of all types (cars, motorhomes, lorries, buses, earthworks machinery, heavy goods vehicles) and 365 containers (247 stowed on the weather deck and 118 on the lowest deck), 45 of which contained various quantities of hazardous materials, with 16 different hazardous substances in total.

The vessel was travelling through the Bay of Biscay, some 140 nautical miles from the French coast, off the south-west of the tip of Penmarc’h (Brittany), when a fierce fire broke out in the containers on deck. The fire was not controllable.

The crew abandoned the Grande America which was drifting slowly eastwards and sank on 12th March in waters 4,600 m deep in the Bay of Biscay, off La Rochelle, despite the best efforts of the French Navy and the salvage tug Abeille Bourbon, called in for support to extinguish the fire and tow the ship.

The Maritime Prefecture for the Atlantic was quick to activate three components of the French offshore contingency plan:

  • the SAR component (Search and Rescue);
  • the ANED component (assistance to a vessel in distress);
  • the POLMAR component (maritime pollution).

The MRCC Corsen, as the reference centre for marine pollution for the Atlantic coast of France, was mobilised.

On 11th March, the 27 people who had been onboard the ship were rescued from a lifeboat by the Royal Navy frigate HMS Argyll, called to provide assistance, and were taken to the port of Brest. The same day, the Maritime Prefect for the Atlantic ordered the operator, the Grimaldi Group, to take all the necessary measures to put a stop to the hazardous situation caused by the vessel in the French exclusive economic zone.




Response at sea

On 13th March, a French Navy surveillance plane spotted a large oil slick, some 10 km long by 1 km wide, in the area of the wreck, as well as around ten containers fallen overboard. The Maritime Prefect for the Atlantic ordered the pollution response vessel Argonaute to be sent onsite and to begin spill response operations.

In total, the response involved around ten vessels, including:

  • vessels belonging to or chartered by the French Navy;
  • Spanish vessels, sent onsite under the Biscaye Plan, a Franco-Spanish agreement, activated on 15th March;
  • EMSA (European Maritime Safety Agency) vessels.

The vessels were concentrated in two areas: above the wreck where a leak of low density oil was regularly observed and in the vicinity of the initial oil slicks. Weather conditions were deteriorating. The French Navy and French customs, called in to provide support from April, conducted regular overflights to observe the evolution of the pollutant at sea. Drones deployed from spill response vessels on site contributed to observation efforts. The European Maritime Safety Agency provided its support for satellite surveillance via CleanSeaNet and through drone deployment to search for oil slicks. Two oil slicks were detected on 14th March, to the west of La Rochelle, some 20 km apart. One of the slicks, approximately 13 km long by 7 km wide, was located above the wreck, while the second, around 9 km long by 7 km wide, appeared less compact than the first.

On 15th March, the operator launched operations to recover two floating containers, in collaboration with the Maritime Prefecture for the Atlantic, which issued a navigational warning to alert sea users to their presence.

Over the following days, the oil dispersed at sea and the slicks were broken down into small scattered clusters.

The response was scaled down in early April. Six drifting containers were recovered, as were several life rafts from the Grande America and several tens of tonnes of solidified heavy fuel oil. Several hundred tonnes of oily water were recovered and transported to the port of La Rochalle to be treated by a specialised company contracted by the operator. Despite the response efforts deployed, all the oil at sea was not recovered.

In mid-April, EMSA aircraft and the CleanSeaNet satellite system continued to survey the zone to detect any significant upwellings of oil from the wreck. There was still a risk of tarballs being washed up on the French coastline, but widespread strandings were no longer likely.

The French maritime authorities ordered to the operator to “put forward an action plan to mitigate the long term environmental impact of the incident”. In early April, the operator chartered the Island Pride, a vessel specialised in subsea operations and equipped with a ROV (remote operated vehicle), to inspect the wreck. The wreck was found to be intact and sitting vertically on the sandy bottom, with the stern section buried several metres deep.

Cedre's contribution

A crisis management team was set up under the maritime pollution (POLMAR) component of the contingency plan and based at the crisis response centre in Brest. Cedre joined this team as an expert.

On 14th March, the Maritime Prefect for the Atlantic activated the drift committee led by Cedre and composed of experts such as Ifremer, Météo France and SHOM. This committee confirmed the risk of shoreline pollution. It provided a summary comprising the locations of oil observations at sea and the associated drift forecasts, and issued recommendations.

On 15th March, samples of bunker fuel arrived at Cedre for analysis of their weathering and behaviour in Cedre’s flume tank or Polludrome®. The purpose of these tests was to help define the most appropriate strategy for response at sea, as well as on the shoreline if the oil were to reach the coast.

Cedre also held technical discussions (on the type of pollutant, the results of slick observations, slick drift) with several of its Spanish partners.




Within the crisis response centre, Cedre, in cooperation with the laboratory LASEM and naval firefighters, also contributed to the analysis of the impact on the marine environment of the chemicals transported by the Grande America.

On 19th and 20th March, three oiled birds were discovered on the beaches of Hendaye (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) and Messanges (Landes). The samples taken from the birds and analysed by Cedre showed that this was the oil from the Grande America. 

In addition to the offshore response, Cedre was also mobilised in relation to the shoreline response in anticipation of strandings of oil on the French coastline. Working in close collaboration with the French Ministry for the Ecological and Inclusive Transition (MTES), decentralised State services and the Prefecture for the South-West Defence Zone, Cedre took part in preparing the relevant local stakeholders to handle oil pollution on their shores. In addition to this technical input for municipalities along the Atlantic coastline, a specialised POLMAR shoreline training course was organised for the Pyrénées-Atlantiques.

Shoreline response preparedness 

In mid-March, the Prefects of Charente-Maritime, Gironde and Landes pre-empted the risk of shoreline pollution and placed the relevant services on pre-alert: preparation and positioning of the necessary response equipment and organisation of surveys.

To the best of our knowledge, no oil washed up on the beaches of these 3 departments. By 22nd November, no oil had reached the Spanish coasts. This highlights the effectiveness of offshore response operations.


The investigation

The French marine accident investigation board BEAmer launched a technical investigation jointly with their Italian counterparts in mid-March. In November 2019, this investigation was still in progress. Meanwhile, a preliminary investigation was opened by Brest’s Chief Prosecutor.

This incident illustrates the risk of fire onboard container ships and in particular the risk related to their cargo. This risk is related to several factors during the shipping of hazardous substances in containers:

  • the variety of hazardous substances;
  • the types of hazardous substances. Chemical reactions are different in the presence of heat and/or water. Certain substances will spontaneously ignite upon contact with a flame, others will auto-ignite, explode or react violently with water;
  • rapid contamination of other containers making the situation almost impossible to control.
Last update on 08/11/2019

See also

Cedre Information Bulletin n° 40, May 2019: "Sinking of the Grande America"

Cedre Information Bulletin n° 39, July 2019: "Sinking of the Grande America"

Sea&Shore Technical Newsletter, 2019, n° 49

External links

Inventory of hazardous substances  transported by the Grande America (in French)

Final report on the investigation by DIGIFeMa (Directorate General for Rail and maritime Investigations))

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