It was more than two months ago on the 22nd of July when crowds thronged to Karachi sea view to take in the scenery. Except on this occasion, most of the gawkers were not there to enjoy the sea breeze or marvel at the beauty of the ocean. No, they were there to see Heng Tong 77 – a container ship bound for Turkey that found itself adrift without an anchor and stranded at a very public part of the Karachi beach.
What followed was a long drawn out process watched closely by the general public as the Pakistan Navy and the Karachi Port Trust teamed up with other coastal organizations to dislodge the ship from where it found itself stuck. This turned out to be a long and arduous process. Stalled by bad weather and rough sea, the ship refused to budge and it took around seven serious attempts over the course of 48 days to finally refloat the ship. In the middle of those attempts were conspiracy theories, environmental concerns, and a host of other problems that came with a 36,000 tonne ship being in a place where it was absolutely not supposed to be.
Here is how it went down. The ship was never supposed to enter Pakistan in the first place. The Heng Tong 77, owned by a Hong Kong based cargo company, had set sail from Shanghai and was on its way to Istanbul. After reaching close to Pakistani waters, the ship was supposed to wait for a crew change. However, since this was supposed to be a short and efficient process, it did not actually come all the way up to Karachi harbour and instead dropped its anchor close to the harbour in Pakistani waters.
Here, allegedly, choppy waters resulted in the anchor breaking and the ship’s engine turned out to be too weak to withstand the rough sea. Rudderless and at the mercy of the winds, the enormous 321 feet long and 65 feet wide ship began floating towards sea view. In a very anticlimactic manner, the ship eventually found itself gently embedding itself ashore. People arrived at the spot to see it despite the fact that the beach was closed under Section 144 of the criminal procedure code, banning people from getting into the rough monsoon sea. Still, the public could access the beach from the McDonald’s parking lot to take many pictures and videos of the ship. It was possible to get quite close to it during low tide. But after the sharing of those pictures and videos on social media, the beach was properly closed from that side as well.
Somehow authorities found themselves unusually concerned about equipment being stolen from the ship by people. This concern was more than fair enough, but what they were not considering in this situation yet was the possible hazard that the ship got pose both environmentally if there was an oil spill and to human life if it had dangerous materials on board. It also became imperative to work fast because no inspection had been done of what could be on board the ship and it was up until then a very mysterious occurrence. The owners of the ship were contacted to bring in salvage teams to see what could be done about it while experts assessed the situation to decide whether the ship would have to be broken up.
What made matters more interesting was the fact that even though the ship was clearly headed towards the beach, it did not call for help. From what little we know of the sea and ships, I think a mayday call would have been okay. Ali Zaidi however thinks there is more than meets the eye. “This is Imran Khan’s government. I have been indicating from day one that we will not allow anyone to take illegal advantage of our ports,” he said in a tweet. He also says he is adamant to find out who the person responsible behind the incident is.
The government made it very clear that the ship’s owner was responsible for the cost of dislodging the ship, but the Pakistan Navy and its coast guard service, the Pakistan Maritime Security Agency, offered their full assistance in getting the ship out. By July 26, the government said that its plans were to refloat the ship instead of breaking it down. Thankfully, the ship was not carrying oil, however, it was very clear that its hull had been damaged. This meant that the ship could still cause a massive oil spill right at sea view which would become an environmental disaster. On the 28th of July, the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Maritime Affairs Chairman Mir Amir Ali Khan Magsi and members expressed concern over reports that oil could spill from the ship and cause a disaster in the surroundings of Karachi Port. As it dragged anchor due to rough weather and got stuck in shallow waters at Karachi’s Sea View, the authorities raised fears that the oil being transported in the cargo vessel could spill, and potentially damage the environment.
Suddenly all eyes were on the Heng Tong 77 – a ship that was never even supposed to enter Pakistani waters in the first place which is why it was still flying a Panama flag instead of the Pakistani flag, as is international nautical procedure. It was not carrying a Pakistani flag because it did not expect to stop here. The first thing that was done was defueling the ship, since refloating it was going to be difficult because of rough low tides caused by the monsoons. On July 29th, a week after the ship first floated up to shore, the Pakistan Navy and other maritime stakeholders successfully defueled the ship. The officials of Karachi Port Trust (KPT), the Pakistan Navy and Maritime Security Agency (MSA) had jointly carried out the operation which started earlier in the morning. The ship was carrying 118 tonnes of bunker fuel.
The de-bunkering operation took two days, in which there was a lot of hustle and bustle around the area. There were fire tenders, ambulances and visits by Navy personnel as more barriers were put in place at all the entry points to Abdul Sattar Edhi Avenue to block access to the beach where a de-bunkering or defueling operation was under way. The defueling of the ship, which had commenced on Wednesday, could not be completed within a day as had been thought earlier due to high tide hindering the work. But on Thursday the high tide was to be at 1.48pm and keeping this in mind, work started at 5am.
The good thing was that the original threat was successfully kept at bay – there was no oil spill and no environmental damage. When ships break down, you have spills. That didn’t happen here. As per the DG Sindh Environmental Protection Agency, no fuel of any kind was spilling from the ship. In fact on July 27 it was decided that 95 tonnes of the total 117 tonnes of low sulphur fuel in the ship would be safely removed leaving just enough for the ship to continue functioning. Fire tenders and ambulances were deployed during the de-bunkering or defueling. In order to prevent damage to the environment KPT Marine Pollution Control and port security personnel were deployed on site to avoid oil spillage.
On August 2nd, two more days after the defueling, the government said that work to withdraw the stranded Heng Tong 77 off Karachi’s shore would be started on August 15. With the fuel out of the ship, now the concern was just to get it back afloat since it wasn’t doing anyone any good stuck at the beach. However there was still another twist left in the tale, and one that had the ship’s owners sweating.
On 11 August 2021, before it had been freed, the ship was declared unseaworthy and a threat to human life on ship and property. The Ministry of Maritime Affairs commandeered the vessel, issuing a notification of detention telling its owners that the Heng Tong 77 was being detained under the power conferred by section 394 of the Pakistan Merchant Ordinance 2001 due to defective condition of the hull, navigation equipment, and machinery. This meant, of course, that even if the ship magically found itself floating away from the beach, it could not simply just return to its owners. It has to pass through a check and get a satisfactory report from the surveyor.
On the 14th August, Independence Day, citizens showed up at the beach to not only enjoy the cool breeze but to also look at the ship stuck. Some equipment of the rescue company was also stolen. Thousands of people approached the ship. Some even climbed it. Three failed attempts and 48 days later, however, the vessel finally started moving. Tug vessels took control of the ship and it drifted away from seaview at a steady pace of three nautical miles. The ship was taken to the harbor because its anchors were broken and also because Pakistan took the ship into its custody. The ship is likely to stay in Pakistani waters until the owners do not fix the issues pointed out by authorities.The ship was saved on the fourth attempt primarily because there is no dedicated salvage company in Pakistan.
Interestingly enough, this ship was also the first functional ship in the world that had the company flag of a shipbreaking company hoisted on it. That itself was quite a lot of drama considering the ship’s owners hited Seamax in Pakistan through Dubai based C-Crest to save money while saving the ship. Seamax then hired a local company called Ayan Shipbreaking to pull the stranded ship out. Officials in Pakistan were not too happy with this and raised objections citing that SeaMax was not registered as a salvage company with the KPT.
While the Abdullah Shah Ghazi Mazaar keeps storms away, it may not be effective against ships. On August 14, an LPG Gas Tanker named Yodla registered in Panama was stranded 52 nautical miles from Karachi Port. The reason was engine failure and both anchors lost. The ship made a distress call that it could not be controlled to take to breakwaters and was drifting towards shallow waters. With situations like this being oddly recurrent, it might be worth looking into both why Pakistan does not have a quicker response to this, and what the possible dangers could be if we are not quicker about dealing with it.