The ill-fated frigate HMS Helge Ingstad took part in NATO’s “high visibility exercise” just a week ago, even under some early Northern Lights, but that didn’t prevent it from colliding with a tanker and a tug boat in quiet waters near its home port on Thursday. Efforts continued to keep the expensive warship from sinking Thursday afternoon, as multiple investigations into the collision get underway.
It’s hard to understand how a supposedly modern warship that cost NOK 5 billion to build could collide with a small civilian tanker in clear weather and calm seas, and be so badly damaged that it capsizes in a peaceful island bay. Military personnel remained mostly mum after that’s what happened to their frigate Helge Ingstad, and multiple investigations are underway.
The collision involving the Helge Ingstad Thursday morning is nothing short of a national disaster, both in terms of huge military and financial loss, and lost prestige. The frigate was returning to its home port in Bergen after taking part in the otherwise widely acclaimed NATO exercise Trident Juncture, which was wrapping up in Norway this week.
Video from the radar-based servie Marine Traffic shows how the small tanker Sola, registered in Malta and with 625,000 barrels of crude oil on board, sailed from the Norwegian oil terminal called Sture at 3:40am on Thursday. The tanker set a course northward, accompanied by a tug boat named Tenax.
At that point, the Norwegian frigate Helge Ingstad was not visible on radar, but heading south. The tanker reached its top speed of 7.2 knots but then lowered it, at 3:59am, to 5.6 knots, apparently approaching on the frigate’s starboard (right) side.
Norwegian Broacasting (NRK) reported that at 4:03am, the main search and rescue service for Southern Norway, Hovedredningssentralen, received a report that the frigate and the tanker had collided, with no details about damage or personnel on board. The rescue service sent both a rescue vessel and a helicopter to the scene, followed shortly by fire boats and divers.
At 4:04am, the frigate popped up on Marine Traffic’s screens, marked as a “NATO Warship” and standing still. At 4:11am the frigate sent out a call for help itself, mostly as a formality, NRK reported, since the rescue service was already notified.
Naval officers at the Norway’s Haakonverns base in Bergen where the Helge Ingstad was heading firmly refused, at a press conference Thursday afternoon, to offer any information about how the collision could have occurred. Since it wasn’t visible on Marine Traffic’s system, it’s possible the tanker couldn’t see the frigate on its radar either. There were no answers to the questions of how those on the bridge of the frigate could have missed the tanker, given their navigation systems and personnel on watch. “We won’t speculate,” Commander Nils Andreas Stensønes told reporters, leaving state accident investigators to sort out the chain of events.
They claimed their priority Thursday afternoon was to attend to the frigate’s crew of 137 and “keep them together” so they can “take care of each other.” Two crew members were admitted to Haukeland Hospital in Bergen, suffering from minor injuries that were not detailed. Six others were taken to local emergency services but were back with their crew members at Haakonsvern.
Stensønes said he had no information about how many frigate crew members were on the bridge when the collision occurred, but he confirmed the vessel lost its steering and drifted towards land. Efforts were made to maneuver the stricken vessel, which received a nearly 10-meter-long gash on its starboard side, into a shallow coastal bay and prevent more water from pouring into it.
The frigate became so unstable, however, that its captain and seven remaining crew members abandoned ship at 6:40am, according to Stensønes. Efforts continued Thursday afternoon to stabilize the fregate and prevent it from sinking, if only to try to salvage some of its highly valuable equipment.
Speculation was already running high that any helicopters stored under the deck may already have been ruined, along with lots of other sensitive equipment in the vessel’s engine room. The frigate was carrying helicopter fuel along with its own, which was leaking, setting off pollution concerns. The frigate also carried weapons and ammunition, but they weren’t believe to pose too much of a risk, according to retired flag commander Jacob Børresen, who had served on another Norwegian frigate. There was no immdiate word on the condition of the oil tanker Sola.
Børresen called the collision “a tragic accident,” as stabilization and salvage efforts went on. Not only the Norwegian Navy was facing big losses because of the collision. It also forced closure of the Sture oil terminal along with the Ivar Aasen and Edvard Grieg oil fields, and may also disrupt gas shipments to Europe.
“We rely on exporting our oil to the Sture terminal,” Frøydis Eldevik of oil company Lundin, which operates the Grieg field, told NRK. “When it’s closed, it’s normal procedure to shut down production.” State oil company Equinor, which runs the Sture terminal, said the Oseberg and Grane fields would also need to halt production since they also deliver to Sture.
The Troll A gas field delivers to a facility at Kollsnes, but it closed when Sture closed. That can reduce deliveries to Europe, but producers hoped the disruption would not last long.