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Accident date
Accident area
Off Dunkirk
Spill area
Cause of spill
Quantity transported
1,990 tonnes
Nature of pollutant
Heavy fuel oil (IFO 380)
Quantity spilled
Several cubic metres
Ship / structure type
Ro-ro vessel
Built date

The sinking

On Saturday 14 December 2002 at around 2.30 am, the Tricolor, a Japanese-built car carrier built in 1987 and registered in Tronsberg (Norway), collided with the container ship the Kariba. The Tricolor sank 30 m deep in a matter of minutes, in the Pas-de-Calais, 20 miles northwest of Dunkirk. She was transporting 2,862 new luxury cars and 77 containers. The wreck lay on the seabed, leaning on one side.
The crew, composed of a Norwegian commanding officer, and one Swedish and 22 Philippine sailors, was rescued. The container ship the Kariba was able to continue her journey to Antwerp after colliding with the Tricolor.
 The Tricolor was transporting 1,990 tonnes of heavy fuel oil (IFO 380), a product of medium viscosity (380 cSt at 50 °C), divided between 8 ballasts, 200 m³ of diesel oil and 25 tonnes of lubricating oil. The wreck represented a risk for navigation and a potential source of pollution. The Préfecture Maritime of the Channel/North sea area immediately took emergency measures and called upon Cedre’s expertise. Cedre’s response centre sent an expert to Cherbourg.
 The analysis of the situation mainly concerned the assessment of a possible pollution risk (products involved, volumes and location in the ship, behaviour in the case of a spill, etc.), the marking and the safety of sea traffic round the wreck and about the oil response at sea. Cedre was given fuel samples to analyze it and assess its dispersibility.


Marking and collisions

Marking and surveillance operations of the navigation area around the wreck were set up. A patrol boat from the Gendarmerie Maritime ensured safe navigation in the area. A light buoy locating the wreck's position (10 m high and 2.65 m wide for a weight of 10 tonnes) was anchored 150 m from the wreck by the “Phares et Balises“ department on Saturday 14 December.
At the request of Cherbourg's Préfecture Maritime, Smit Salvage rescue company, contacted by the ship insurer, sent two other barges to reinforce the intervention system and to make the wreckage area safer.
Despite this prevention system and the broadcast of many radio messages, the Nicola, a Dutch coasting vessel, collided with the wreck, which emerged by only a few centimetres, on 16 December around midnight. She succeeded in refloating herself with the help of two Belgian tugs on the 17th at 8 am. After this incident, two French and English patrol boats were sent on site to signal the wreck’s position and the marking system around the Tricolor was totally revised. Four cardinal positioned light buoys (one in the east, one in the west and two in the south), one of which had a Racon system (buoy transmitting a specific radar echo easily visible on all screens), were set up 600 m from the wreck on 20 December. Another light buoy was installed on Monday 26 December 150 m from the Tricolor. Daily flights over the wreck were implemented by French, Belgian and British means to survey the potential pollution incident. A fifth fixed light buoy (north cardinal) was put in place on 26 December 2002.
Despite these efforts, on 1st January 2003 at 7:20 pm, the Vicky, a Turkish oil tanker transporting 66,000 tonnes of kerosene, travelling from Antwerp to New York, hit the Tricolor’s wreck. She succeeded in refloating herself at 11 pm. The following day, the starboard part of the Tricolor sank further, observed by an overflight by a French Navy helicopter.

Lightering the wreck

The Smit Salvage company, mobilized by the ship owner, sent the barge Deurloo on site equipped with intervention means (a 30 tonne crane, a 30 m³ bunker, 600 m of Ro-boom 1100 and three hydraulic pumps) to rapidly empty the Tricolor’s oil tanks in order to avoid any pollution risk. Pumping operations began on 21 December 2002 and finished on 17 February 2003. The pollution risk from the wreck then became a minor problem but the risk of pollution from a colliding ship persisted until the wreck had been removed. 1700 of the 2200 m³ of fuel transported by the Tricolor was recovered.
 An invitation to haul the wreck was issued by the ship owner on 17 January, to which three companies responded. The contract was given to the consortium ‘Combinatie Berging Tricolor’ and was signed on 11 April. By the end of June, the operations carried out had assessed the hull and designed a submarine cartography of the area around the wreck. Bollards (lashing points) were fixed to make wreck’s sections resurface with the help of cranes. The next stage involved establishing a cutting system.


Cutting the wreck

The cutting began on 22 July 2003, after a certain delay due to bad weather conditions. Two rigs activated the diamond-tipped wire cable which was to cut the ro-ro ferry into nine parts. Two ships chartered by the ship owner, contributed to the surveillance of this special site and reinforced maritime security around the wreck.
The French Navy also took part in the surveillance operation, due partly to the fact that next to the site was one of the busiest maritime channels in the world (18 % of world sea traffic passes through the Channel – North Sea shipping lane). The patrol boat the Flamant was sent to survey the site and its surroundings. She was later replaced by the patrol boat the Altaïr.

The weather conditions were good and no technical problem were encountered, which meant that the cutting of the first part of the Tricolor was completed in 5 days. This part was then righted and loaded onto the barge the Giant IV which headed for the port of Zeebrugge (Belgium). To avoid any potential pollution during the cutting operation, the ship owner deployed the antipollution ship the Union Beaver in the area.
The removal of the remains of the double hull of the vessel was completed on the 19 July 2004. The starboard ramp was then recovered and the debris removed. The extraction of the remaining parts was carried out using large grab hooks and lasted several months. The fine clean-up operation then began, bringing the cars and the heavy equipment from the seabed to the surface.


According to the law, the response operations to potential pollution were:

  • borne by the ship owner, therefore by delegation his service provider, SMIT Salvage's, authority, for everything that concerned work and the risk associated with it
  • borne by the different states (first France, then the United Kingdom in the framework of the Channel cooperation plan and Belgium eventually) for all other risks, particularly in the case of the wreck’s boarding by another ship.

On 15 January 2003, an oil slick was detected on Ambleteuse and Hardelot beaches (Pas-de-Calais). The following day, Wissant littoral (Pas-de-Calais) was affected. This pollution can be explained by the fact that during pumping operations, the plug of one of the bunkers, containing 170 m³ each, had been pulled out by one of the tugs chartered by the ship owner. Several cubic metres of propulsion fuel from the Tricolor spread over the sea.
Another incident took place around 23 January, during a pumping operation. Following a mistake in the operation due to bad weather conditions on the scene of action, the company’s barge in charge of the pumping damaged two valves of a bunker, freeing several tens of cubic metres of heavy fuel. Antipollution vessels were immediately put at France and Belgium’s disposal by the ship owner. They added further to the means settled jointly with the two countries, under the Channel and North Sea Préfecture Maritime's control on the French side. The leaks were sealed and part of the pollution was recovered at sea.
 Thereafter aerial surveillance did not bring to light any further traces of pollution along the French coasts, except for residual iridescences around the wreck. However a few fragmented slicks drifting in the northeast were located near Belgium.
On 2nd February, Polmar’s plane belonging to the French Customs located oil cakes near the coast, to the south of Boulogne and offshore. This pollution began to hit the coast between Bray-Dunes and the Belgian border from 4 February. The amount of pollution was difficult to estimate because of the oil’s behaviour, as it often floated beneath the surface.


Even if on land and at sea Polmar Plans had not been triggered, volonteers from coastal towns became active and joined forces with prefectures and sub-prefectures. On land cleaning operations took place in January around Boulogne, and at the end of January and in February around Calais and Dunkirk, taking into account Cedre’s recommendations in terms of cleaning and net protection. A few hundred tonnes of oiled waste were collected and were treated in the incineration plant for special waste.
Almost 5,500 oiled birds were found and treated by the LPA (league for the protection of animals) of Calais and the RSPCA of Dunkirk. The birds were then rehabilitated in an outdoor centre situated on Ghyvelde lake (close to Dunkirk).

Last update on 31/08/2004

See also

Bulletin N°21 : "Potentially polluting wreck"

Bulletin N°20 : "Treatment of the Tricolor wreck"

External links

Préfecture Maritime for the Channel and the North Sea, The Préfecture Maritime's report about the Tricolor. (in French)

Tricolor Salvage - SMIT, The SMIT company’s website, which is in charge of the Tricolor’s wreck treatment and removal

Wallenius Whilelmsen Lines, The shipowner’s website

Sea Alarm, Full report on Sea Alarm’s involvement

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