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Special 012306 APL Panama

 January 23, 2006


Container Ship Still Aground in Ensenada, Mexico


An Editorial from the Gringo Gazette North


That deafening silence emanating from the Ensenada Port Authority, in Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico, about the container ship APL Panama grounding is the unmistakable sound of a media blackout.  Nobody who knows anything is talking, and when they do the things that they say are limited.  So far little official information has been provided, and officials have certainly not offered any explanation about how this wreck could have occurred.  A larger area of the beach has now been cordoned off, which effectively keeps out observers.


In the meantime, APL Panama officials, comfortably ensconced in their offices in Germany, are feeding upbeat assessments via telephone to the U.S. press, who are equally comfy up there in San Diego.  But the view from the ground here in Mexico is a bit different.  And there are plenty of tough questions that need to be answered about this disaster.


First, it is obvious that both the Port Authority and the ship’s owners are trying to put a positive spin on things.  On December 28, three days after the grounding, the Ensenada Port Authority marketing director told the San Diego Union-Tribune newspaper, "We anticipate the tugs will come and tug it off the sandy bottom and the ship will proceed to Ensenada."


Even at that early date anyone could see that the ship was not stuck on any “sandy bottom,” it was up on the beach.  Later, after the first oil spill, the Union-Tribune reported that a spokesman for the ship’s owners claimed that the salvage company "had booms on the stern and the bow of the ship, and immediately cleaned up the beach.”




If the salvage crew had booms on the stern and bow of the ship, then why haven’t any Ensenada witnesses seen these booms?  No bow and stern oil booms were ever seen in the pounding surf either before or after the oil spill, and deploying them in breaking surf would be ineffective anyway.  Maybe the ship’s owners, speaking from Germany, thought that nobody would notice this detail.


Finally, the Port Captain announced that the rescue attempt on January 14 failed, but that the efforts did succeed in moving the bow 20 degrees out to sea.  This claim must be examined closely.  Yes the ship did pivot on its keel, but the stern is now 50 feet higher up on the beach than it was before.  Was this shift really a positive result of the rescue attempt, or did the stern accidentally slip up the beach during the high tide the night of Friday the 13th?


What other facts might they be fudging?


The main issue, though, is how this wreck could ever have occurred in the first place?  Plenty of obvious questions are raised by the date of the incident, which was Christmas Sunday.  Christmas Day is an official holiday in Mexico, suggesting that the port might not have been fully staffed that evening.  Also, Christmas cheer was flowing freely throughout Ensenada, and who knows if the people at sea might have sipped a toddy or two?


The First Mate has stated that the Captain was late getting to the bridge.  Little is known about what happened on the bridge that night, but somebody clearly was not paying attention.  Fathometers indicate when a ship is getting into shallow water, so there must have been plenty of warning time when no corrective action was taken.


Then, as the ship approached the beach, the Panama attempted to turn southward.  It turned perpendicular to the wind and surf, and the huge boat acted like a sail and washed up on the beach.  Instead of attempting to turn, perhaps the Panama should have thrown the engines in reverse, or beached at a 90-degree angle.


Next there is the question of whether the two tugboats that initially responded to the crisis acted correctly.  Two tugs cannot do much, so should more equipment have been available?  An eyewitness reported that the tugs initially attempted to push the ship out to sea, then attempted to pull it.  But, for some reason the tugs abandoned their efforts.  If they had simply held their positions and continued to pull on the ship, perhaps they could have prevented the Panama from running further aground.


The day after the grounding, the Ensenada Port Authority immediately blamed the ship’s Captain, saying that an “investigation” had determined that the Port was not at fault.  Is a one day investigation really enough to determine all the facts?  Can the Port Authority be trusted to investigate itself?


There is plenty of motivation in Ensenada to keep things quiet.  The less information anyone provides, the more likely the story is to drop off the public radar screen.  This port is attempting to position itself as a major alternative to Long Beach or San Diego, and embarrassing incidents like this are bad for business.


Mums the word.



Nancy Conroy, Publisher of northern Baja California’s biweekly Gringo Gazette North, is also a columnist with MexiData.info.  She can be reached via e-mail at nancy@gringogazettenorth.com.

Photo Courtesy of Gringo Gazette North