Ostrea was too slow and heavy

The MMV Ostrea from the back.
The MMV Ostrea from the back.

The ill-fated Loughs Agency oyster boat, the MMV Ostrea, which sank in the middle of Londonderry before Christmas, was almost twice its original weight and taking about four hours to get from Lisahally to its target survey sites in Lough Foyle following a refit to bring the second-hand vessel up to scratch, the Sentinel can reveal.

The boat was also subject to Circuit Court Proceedings in England in 2013 and Loughs Agency board members expressed serious misgivings about the vessel over the past four years.

Last month this paper revealed how the boat had a history of faults and how a former Loughs Agency skipper, tasked with taking delivery of the boat after she was shipped from New Zealand to Sheerness in 2009, resigned after reporting he was “horrified with her condition.”

Now this paper can report how the Loughs Agency set up a special MMV Ostrea Sub Committee in order to monitor the boat’s progress.

Committee minutes obtained by the Sentinel under Freedom of Information legislation show the Loughs Agency had been seeking to replace the boat’s engines to increase her speed with work earmarked to take place over the November 2015 to February 2016 period, when ironically, it sank in Londonderry city centre.

The minutes, which span from November 2012 to August 2015 show there were ongoing problems with the survey vessel, which had been purchased second-hand in New Zealand, after the Loughs Agency received £750,000 in EU funding for the purpose.

At a meeting in July 2013, marine surveyor Ken Walsh, advised Committee members that the boat had put on an awful lot of weight.

“Ken advised the meeting that the Ostrea’s weight has gone up considerably and now weighs 44 tonnes. Michael McCormick [board member] advises that this is almost double its original weight.

“Ken adds that the vessel can comfortably go to sea at 50 tonnes with equipment and crew on board and is working as a displacement hull,” the minutes reveal.

The weight of the boat came up at an earlier Committee meeting on November 28, 2012, because it was badly affecting the Ostrea’s speed.

While speed is not an essential requirement for an oyster survey boat it was taking a full morning to get from Lisahally to the Lough Foyle oyster beds.

“Jim Wilson [board member] stated that during previous discussions in relation to the MMV Ostrea the Agency had talked about speed and performance,” the minute reads.

“Jim added that if the vessel was performing well that in his opinion speed wasn’t a major issue.,

“Barry Fox [Director of Aquaculture and Shellfisheries] agreed but added that at the minute with the current speed of the vessel it was taking four hours to get to and from Lishally to the survey sites and he would like to see this time reduced.

“Don Tipping [board member] queries the current weight of the vessel and asked why so much weight had been added to the vessel.”

Mr Fox went on to explain how the boat was purchased second-hand and had to be refitted for the job required of it.

“Barry reported that the refit of the vessel had added to the weight of the vessel.”

At this meeting Mr Walsh also reported that he had had some safety concerns but these were dispelled when he had a look at it.

“Ken Walsh advised the meeting that when the issue of safety was raised by the Board he was concerned but having surveyed the vessel and having sight of the vessel’s stability book and certification he was not concerned,” the minute reads.

By July 2013 the speed of the Ostrea had improved and it was taking about two-and-a-half hours to get out from Lisahally.

Board member Alan McCulla raised the issue.

“Alan McCulla asks could the vessel operate at a desired speed following all works carried out and Barry Fox adds that at the current speed it is taking two to two-and-a-half hours to get up the Lough, which is unacceptable. He said that the engine work carried out recently had been resolved and the vessel is going like a dream otherwise.”

But more work was required and it was estimated this would cost another £360,000.

“Ken advised the meeting that the Ostrea needs new drives, gearbox, which will increase the torque and by adding these major changes will have to be made to the vessel including lowering the engines.

“Michael McGoldrick asked is it possible to lower the engines and would this not cause further problems.”

By late 2014 the Committee was suggesting the extra work would have been completed by now.

At a meeting on October 30, 2014: “Jim Wilson asked Barry what timeframe he had in mond for this work. Barry stated that he had hoped to get the tender process underway in early 2015. Barry added that he envisaged the tender process being complete and work taking place between November 2015 and Febraury 2016.”

By August 26, 2015, the search for a contractor was ongoing.

“Ken Walsh advised the meeting that since they last met he had contacted three suppliers for a quote and had received no information back from them.”

By December, however, events had overtaken all of this with dramatic overnight sinking of the Ostrea.