Hours after the U.S. Coast Guard raised the alert level for mariners and ports in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, due to the expectation that gale force winds from an approaching storm, the Coast Guard was responding to a distress call from a ro-ro cargo ship that was reportedly taking on water.
As of noon on Wednesday, July 29, the Coast Guard raised the alert level to Condition Zulu expecting winds greater than 39 mph from the passing storm. Ports it said would remain closed while cargo operations were suspended including bunkering and lightering.
The Island Express, a Cyprus flagged 412-foot ro-ro cargo ship, with a crew of 18 departed the port of San Juan to avoid the storm, but shortly after the vessel left the port, the Coast Guard reports that it received a mayday VHF radio transmission on Channel 16 from the captain of the Island Express. They reported that there was a possible broken pipe in the engine room and that the bilges were approximately 75 percent full of water.
“Despite the impending tropical storm and all Station San Juan small boats securely out of the water for an incoming storm, our boat crews responded immediately to launch two 33-foot small boats from their trailers and the 45-foot Response Boat Medium utilizing the mobile boat hoist,” said Senior Chief Petty Officer Lance Wiser, Station San Juan officer in charge. “The teamwork and training of Station operators allowed these evolutions to safely take place simultaneously which led to all three assets arriving on scene with the distressed vessel within 45 minutes. The sea conditions on scene were pushing the parameters of the small boats but the crews endured and the distressed vessel was escorted safety into the harbor.”
Coast Guard air and surface rescue crews at Sector San Juan responded to assist the vessel in distress. This included two 33-foot small boats and a 45-foot Response Boat Medium from Station San Juan that got underway and arrived on scene with the Island Express. A Coast Guard MH-65 Dolphin helicopter also arrived on the scene, and the aircrew was able to maintain communications with the Coast Guard boat crews as they escorted the cargo ship in eight to 10-foot seas.
In addition, the Sector San Juan Prevention personnel coordinated with the San Juan Bay Pilots and two Puerto Rico towing tugboats that rendezvoused with the Island Express at the entrance of San Juan Harbor. The tugboats escorted the vessel to Pier 15, where the ship safely moored and the crew was able to finalize dewatering of the bilge spaces.
The Coast Guard reports that the vessel remains safely moored in the harbor. After the storm has cleared the area, Coast Guard port assessment teams will determine the condition of port facilities and navigable waterways. Once a satisfactory assessment of the waterway, including critical aids to navigation, is completed, the Coast Guard reports that the captain of the Port San Juan will reopen the port for vessel traffic and resume normal operations.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) say a tropical storm warning with winds possibly gusting to over 50 mph will remain in effect overnight and into Thursday, July 30 for the area around Puerto Rico. The storm is expected to pass to the south of the island on a northwesterly course. There is also a threat of localized storm surge of up to two feet and rain of six to ten inches expected.
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