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AMURSKAYA Carrying Gold Ore Still Missing in Sea of Okhotsk

On October 28 at 8:15 a.m. Moscow time, the emergency beacon of M/V AMURSKAYA activated near the Shantar Islands, in the southwest region of the Sea of Okhotsk. When a nearby tanker, M/T NOVIK, arrived at the position indicated, AMURSKAYA was nowhere to be seen. Conditions were stormy with waves averaging twelve feet. Various aircraft and boats have searched the area since Sunday without results.

At first, there was hope that the emergency beacon had activated accidentally and that AMASKAYA was harbored safely somewhere awaiting better weather conditions, or perhaps even continuing on her route. However, as there have been no communications with AMURSKAYA since before the EPIRB activated (none of those prior communiqu├ęs were emergency related), such hopes are waning. The Sea of Okhotsk is extremely cold, covered in areas by a layer of ice during winter. Searches by air and sea have covered roughly 2,200 square miles, but continue to be hampered by severe weather and poor visibility.

AMURSKAYA is a Russian-flagged 164-foot dry bulk carrier built in 1973 with a cruising speed of eight knots. There are conflicting reports as to the number of crew members on board, but most reports indicate nine individuals. AMURSKAYA was loaded with 700 metric tons (tonnes) of gold ore from the Avlayakan ore deposit in Russia, and was bound from the port of Kiran for a processing plant in Okhotsk. Various reports have the gold ore estimated to be worth approximately $US230,000 (some report higher) as each tonne of gold ore from that particular mine holds about six grams of gold.

The Avlayakan open-pit mine and the ore extracted from it are owned by St. Petersburg-based Polymetal International. According to an online news release by Polymetal, a subsidiary of Polymetal contracted for AMASKAYA to carry the ore from Kiran to Okhotsk, where the Polymetal Khakanja processing plant is located.

At this time, there are further reports that AMURSKAYA may have violated numerous regulations, including not having been officially cleared by port authorities to leave Kiran. Violations cited also include AMURSKAYA being understaffed, overloaded by at least 90 tonnes, and not suited to carry loose cargo. If it turns out that the crew has perished, criminal charges for breaking safety rules at sea may be leveled at whoever is deemed responsible for these violations.

Given time of departure and the time and location of the EPIRB activation, AMASKAYA was possibly running at only three knots. One report suggests that this low speed could be indicative of engine problems. Whether the storm led to engine failure or the engines failed for some other reason (if they did fail), a lack of motor power would make maneuvering effectively in high seas very difficult to impossible. In any case, engine failure or no, when a vessel is overloaded with loose cargo under such conditions, the result is serious instability. For example, when a vessel rolls to port, unsecured contents may displace to port, the momentum of which slows vessel upright. This is bad enough on its own. If a vessel continues to pitch side to side, a positive feedback loop of ever-increasing momentum can literally tip the balance past the point of no return.

Even in calmer seas, any shift in weight may lead to list, flooding, capsizing, and sinking. A reduction in freeboard exacerbates the problem. This applies to fishing vessels as much as it applies to freight carriers, which is one reason why masters of all vessels, large and small alike, must be knowledgeable of safety regulations and of the limitations of their vessels.

For now, we do not yet know whether instability issues played a role in the disappearance of AMURSKAYA or if she and her crew are stranded but safe in some secluded inlet awaiting rescue, or something else. We will continue to follow this story.

UPDATE - 11/5/12

A report in the Moscow Times today states that emergency workers had noticed a diesel fuel sheen in the area where the EPIRB of AMURSKAYA had activated. Sonar showed an object resembling the size of AMURSKAYA at a depth of about 80 feet, but weather conditions have delayed further exploration for the time being. There are still no signs of the crew; rescue workers are searching the nearby coastline for possible survivors.

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