June 11: Pilots of Coast Guard Dorniers making early morning sorties from Calcutta today radioed back that the Fortune Carrier, the Belize ship listing at the mouth of the Hooghly yesterday, had submerged.
The Fortune Carrier is the seventh vessel to sink in six years at the Sandheads, an area that is earning the reputation of a graveyard for vessels.
Forty miles south of Sagar Islands, the Sandheads is a conglomeration of treacherous sandbars spread across hundreds of square kilometres at the river’s mouth. A narrow navigational channel through the area allows ships to sail up and down the Hooghly, berthing at ports in Calcutta and Haldia or dropping anchor at Budge Budge, Falta, Diamond Harbour and Garden Reach.
With the Indonesian Segitika Biru and the Fortune Carrier going down within a month, shipping circles in Haldia and Calcutta pointed to the dangers posed to the channel by the wrecks. Calcutta Port Trust sources said about 81 vessels have sunk along the Hooghly, a large percentage of them at the Sandheads, in the past 130 years.
“The recent ships that have gone down were old and ill-maintained, they did not have the strength to withstand the sandbars grating their hulls,” a senior marine officer pointed out. A CPT spokesman said in Calcutta that the Fortune Carrier was built in 1980 and the Segitika Biru, a year later.
“The companies that operate these vessel do not carry out the mandatory maintenance to keep the ships seaworthy. That is why they cannot withstand the rolling and pitching during storms and even the tidal effects at the Sandheads. Of the last seven ships that have sunk, six have gone under between May and July, when the sea at the approach to the Hooghly becomes extremely choppy,” the marine officer explained.
The captain and 19 crew members of the Fortune Carrier have been brought to Haldia by a Coast Guard hovercraft. “The crew was with INS Betwa, which had rescued them yesterday. They were brought to Haldia and put through immigration and customs formalities. Now they will be sent back to their homes in the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia,” said Commandant R.K. Wadhwa of the Coast Guard at Haldia. The Segitika Biru crew returned home to Indonesia last month.
The CPT has stationed a search-and-rescue vessel near the Sandheads to warn approaching and outgoing traffic of the likely presence of the huge logs that fell off the Fortune Carrier.