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The loss of Capitaine Torres

Capitaine Torres

In Memory of her crew - CAPITAINE TORRES (IMO 7712626 - Port Vila, Vanuatu) - 1 December 1989 - Photographed while she was sailing downbound in the Welland Canal north of lock 2 in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada. Photo by Jeff Cameron. This photo was taken only 7 days before she was lost in the Gulf of St. Lawrence with all hands.

Below is an excerpt from the official Canadian Coast Guard report on the loss of CAPITAINE TORRES.

The ship had been built in 1979 and named SUNNY ISABELLA. In October 1989, new owners registered it in Vanuatu as the CAPITAINE TORRES. A new crew of 23 boarded the TORRES in Germany, sailing for Illinois in order to pick up and transport a dismantled steel mill to Taiwan. Although the engine and propulsion machinery had been maintained to the standards required by the Classification Society right up until the transfer in ownership, the crew experienced numerous problems with the equipment on the transatlantic voyage, and after setting sail from Illinois back through the Great Lakes.

When CAPITAINE TORRES left its last port of call in Quebec on December 6, the weather conditions were fair, but Environment Canada had issued a storm and wind warning. The TORRES maintained radio contact, as required, all that day and the next. Nothing out of the ordinary was reported. But at 7:36 p.m. on December 7, the Torres radioed to say that they had lost part of their cargo overboard and had to stop their main engine to repair the air compressors, an at-sea repair that they expected to take about three hours. The pitch and roll of the sea, with waves reported by the TORRES at 5 meters in height and winds of 48-55 knots (approximately 89-102 kph), caused other cargo to shift, which in turn caused the ship to list some 2° to port.

The message was immediately relayed to the Rescue Coordination Centre in Halifax, and the Coast Guard ship Sir WILFRED GRENFELL, which was berthed in Port aux Basques, NL, some 65 miles from the TORRES and the nearest Coast Guard ship to the scene, was dispatched to assist, leaving port at 8:42 p.m. A continuous, open radiotelephone communications channel was established with the Torres, and they were asked if they wished to declare a Mayday. The Torres did not declare a Mayday at that time, but asked for any other ships in the area to stand by. Two commercial ships about 35 miles away were tasked to assist, but due to the extreme weather conditions, were released from assisting in order to keep their own damage to a minimum.

An aircraft was also dispatched from the Canadian Forces Base at Summerside, PEI, to help coordinate assistance and rescue between the ships, and to drop pumps to the Torres, if needed. It reached the Torres at 11:03 p.m., where it established visual and radio contact. The TORRES appeared stable at the time, although its list had increased to 15°. Its own pumps appeared to be working satisfactorily. Seven minutes later, the plane was released from assisting the TORRES in order to assist another ship, the JOHANNA B., which had declared a Mayday. Unfortunately, the JOHANNA B. sank, along with its full crew of 16, before any assistance could be provided.

At 1:02 a.m. on December 8, the TORRES reported losing more cargo and an increased list to 20°. Since the main engine and its supporting machinery were not designed to operate at such a strong list, the crew did not feel that they would be able to restart the engine. They declared a Mayday but did not intend to abandon ship at that time. Given the weather and sea conditions, the crew would be safer on board than in smaller life vessels. Miraculously, the main engine started again at 1:47, although it stopped again at 2:18 and the list had increased to 30°, although the rolling of the seas caused the ship to rock anywhere from 10° to 40°. But it was still believed that the crew’s safety was best served by remaining on board.

At 3:20, the CCG Sir WILFRED GRENFELL radioed to indicate that they expected to reach the TORRES within 30 minutes. At 3:26, she reported a list of 40° and announced they were abandoning ship, using one inflatable life raft and one lifeboat. At the time, the TORRES was clearly visible on the Sir WILFRED GRENFELL’s radar, but approximately one minute later, it disappeared. At the time, Sir WILFRED GRENFELL reported winds of 55 to 60 knots (102-111 kph) with gusts of up to 70 knots (130 kph), and waves of 9.1-10.7 metres (30-35 feet) superimposed on a swell of 4.8-5.4 metres (16-18 feet). It was dark, and visibility was further hampered by flurries and sea spray blown from the surface of the water and the tops of the waves. The air temperature was -3°, but with the wind chill factored in, it felt like -22°.

At 3:44, the Sir WILFRED GRENFELL reached the last known position of the TORRES, but there was nothing to be seen. At 3:48, the GRENFELL spotted a light on an inflated life raft and approached close enough to be able to see one or two people waving in the open entrance to the raft’s protective canopy. The GRENFELL twice attempted to go alongside the raft, but was unsuccessful. While manoeuvering for the third attempt, the raft was lost to view and not seen again for four hours.

The GRENFELL remained on site to watch for any other lights, flares, or survivors. They saw twelve life jackets, four lighted lifebuoys, and a lifeboat radio, along with a considerable amount of wooden debris, as well as what appeared to be the remains of a lifeboat. But they found neither survivor nor body. At 7:45 a.m., with the arrival of daylight and better visibility, the GRENFELL again spotted the life raft and recovered it at 8:09. It was unoccupied. At 8:10, a second life raft was spotted by a search plane, and it was recovered by the GRENFELL at 9:30. It was also unoccupied. The GRENFELL, supported by several aircraft, searched all day in vicious weather conditions for survivors or bodies, but none were found. The search was reduced 56 hours later and eventually called off at sunset on December 11.

A life jacket from the TORRES was found some five months afterward, floating in the Gulf of St. Lawrence on May 30, 1990. The Coast Guard report concludes its narrative of the events of the TORRES thus: “The lifejacket, together with the two liferafts, are the total articles recovered at the time of production of this report.”