MS München

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MS Munchen.jpg
Career Flag of Germany.svg
Name: MS München
Operator: Hapag-Lloyd
Builder: Cockerill-Sambre
Launched: May 12, 1972
In service: September 22, 1972
Fate: Lost in a storm in the North Atlantic on or about 13 December 1978
General characteristics
Class & type: LASH carrier
Length: 261.4 m
Beam: 32.2 m
Height: 18.29 m
Draught: 11.28 m
Propulsion: 9 cylinder Sulzer diesel-engine, 9 RND 90, 26.100 hp at 122 rpm, driving 5-bladed propeller
26,100 hp
Speed: 18 knots
Capacity: 44,600 long tons
Crew: 28

MS München was a German LASH carrier of the Hapag-Lloyd line that sank with all hands for unknown reasons in a severe storm in December 1978.

The most accepted theory is that one or more rogue waves hit the München and damaged her, so that she drifted for 33 hours with a list of 50 degrees without electricity or propulsion.

Early career[edit]

MS München was launched on May 12, 1972 at the shipyards of Cockerill, Hoboken, Flanders, Belgium and delivered on September 22, 1972. The München was a LASH ship and was the only ship of her kind under the German flag. She departed on her maiden voyage to the United States on October 19, 1972.

Her sister ship MS Bilderdijk was built for the Holland America Line at the Boelwerf Temse Shipyard, also in Flanders, Belgium (Yard number 859). She sailed under the Dutch flag until 1986 when she was renamed Rhine Forest. This ship was retired from commercial operation on December 15, 2007. She has been scrapped in Bangladesh.

Last voyage and search operations[edit]

The München departed the port of Bremerhaven on December 7, 1978, bound for Savannah, Georgia. This was her usual route, and she carried a cargo of steel products stored in 83 lighters and a crew of 28. She also carried a replacement nuclear reactor-vessel head for Combustion Engineering, Inc. This was her 62nd voyage, and took her across the North Atlantic, where a fierce storm had been raging since November. The München had been designed to cope with such conditions, and carried on with her voyage. The exceptional flotation capabilities of the LASH carriers meant that she was widely regarded as being practically unsinkable.

The München was presumed to be proceeding smoothly, until the night of December 12/13. Between 00:05 and 00:07 (all times GMT) München's radio officer Jörg Ernst was overheard during a short radio communication on a "chat" frequency. He reported bad weather and some damage to the München to his colleague Heinz Löhmann aboard MS Caribe, a German cruise ship 2,400 nautical miles (4,440 km) away. Ernst also transmitted München's last known position as 44°N 24°W / 44°N 24°W / 44; -24. The quality of the transmission was bad, so that not everything was understood by Löhmann. Since it was a standard communication, the information was not relayed back to the ship's owner until December 17.

Distress call[edit]

Around three hours later (03:10-03:20), SOS calls were received by the Greek Panamax freighter Marion, which relayed it to the Soviet freighter Marya Yermolova and the German tug boat Titan. MS München gave her position as 46°15′N 27°30′W / 46.250°N 27.500°W / 46.250; -27.500, which was probably around 100 nautical miles (200 km) off her real position. The messages were transmitted via morse code and only parts of them were received. One fragment received was 50 degrees starboard, which could be interpreted as a 50-degree list to starboard. Automatic emergency signals were also received by multiple radio stations starting at 04:43. No further calls were recorded after 07:34, probably because US stations stopped listening on the frequency 2182 kHz. At 17:30 international search and rescue operations were initiated, initially controlled by HM Coastguard at Land's End, Cornwall. Wind speeds of 11-12 Beaufort were reported in the area of the search, hampering efforts.

Initial search efforts and further communications[edit]

The next day, December 13, three aircraft and six ships searched for the München. At 09:06 Michael F. Sinnot, a Belgian radio amateur in Brussels, received a voice transmission on the unusual frequency 8238.4 kHz, which is usually used by the German ground station Norddeich Radio. The transmission was clear but interrupted by some noise, and contained fragments of München's name and callsign. Later in court, Sinnot reported that the voice was calm and spoke in English but with a distinct German accent. Since Sinnot only had a receiver for this frequency, he relayed the message via telex to a radio station in Ostend.

Between 17:00 and 19:14, ten weak Mayday calls were received by the US Naval Station Rota, Spain at regular intervals, mentioning "28 persons on board". The messages may have been recorded and sent automatically. München's call sign, 'DEAT' which was sent in Morse code, was received three times on the same frequency. The Dutch ocean-going tugboat Smit Rotterdam, which was returning from other Mayday calls in the Gulf of Breton and the English Channel, received the calls as well and went to the designated position under the command of Captain PF de Nijs. Seas were heavy, with a swell averaging 22 metres. The search and rescue operation was coordinated from the Smit Rotterdam with more than 100 ships and 16 aircraft.[citation needed]

The search intensifies[edit]

On December 14 wind speeds dropped to Force 9. By now four aircraft and 17 ships were participating in the search operation. Signals of München's emergency buoy were received. At 19:00 the British freighter King George picked up an empty life raft at 44°22′N 24°00′W / 44.367°N 24.000°W / 44.367; -24.000. The same day, Hapag-Lloyd's freighter Erlangen found and identified three of München's lighters. The following day, December 15, a British Hawker Siddeley Nimrod patrol aircraft discovered two orange objects shaped like buoys at 44°48′N 24°12′W / 44.800°N 24.200°W / 44.800; -24.200 and the salvage tug Titan recovered a second life raft. A third one was located at 44°48′N 22°49′W / 44.800°N 22.817°W / 44.800; -22.817 the next day by MS Badenstein, all were empty. A yellow barrel was also sighted that day.

On December 17, at 13:00 Düsseldorf Express salvaged München's emergency buoy. By now wind speeds dropped to Force 3. The freighter Starlight found two life belts, at 43°25′N 22°34′W / 43.417°N 22.567°W / 43.417; -22.567 the Sealand Consumer picked up a fourth empty life raft. Also three life vests were sighted, two of them by Starlight and another one by Evelyn.

The search is called off[edit]

The international search operation officially ended in the evening of December 20, a week after it had begun. The West German government and Hapag-Lloyd decided to search for two more days, with British and American forces supporting them. The search effort had been the largest undertaken to that date. Altogether 13 aircraft from the United Kingdom, the United States of America, Portugal and Germany, and nearly 80 merchant and naval ships had searched for the München or her crew. On February 16, the car transporter Don Carlos salvaged a lifeboat from the starboard side of München, the last object discovered from her.

Investigation[edit]

The subsequent investigation into the disappearance of the München centred on the starboard lifeboat and in particular the forward block from which it had hung. The pins, which should have hung vertically, had been bent back from forward to aft, indicating the lifeboat hanging below it had been struck by a huge force, that had run from fore to aft of the ship, and had torn the lifeboat from its pins[clarification needed]. The lifeboat normally hung 20 metres above the waterline. With the existence of rogue waves then considered so statistically unlikely as to be near impossible, the investigation finally concluded that the severe weather had somehow created an 'unusual event' that had led to the sinking of the München.

As the science behind rogue waves was explored and more fully understood, it was accepted that not only did they exist, but that it was possible that they could occur in the deep ocean, such as in the North Atlantic. Investigators later returned to the question of the München and considered the possibility that she had encountered a rogue wave in the storm that night. Whilst ploughing through the storm on the night of December 12, she was suddenly faced with a wall of water, between 80 to 100 feet (24 to 30 metres) high, looming out of the dark. The München would have plunged into the trough of the huge wave, and before she could rise out of it, it collapsed onto her, breaking across her bow and superstructure, tearing the starboard lifeboat out of its pins and likely smashing into the bridge, breaking the windows and flooding her. Having lost her bridge and steering, she would probably have lost her engines. Unable to maintain her heading into the storm, she would have been forced broadside into the waves. She seems to have floated for a number of hours, but the storm and inaccurate positioning prevented her from being located. She was then hulled by the force of the waves, perhaps even being capsized or breached by another rogue wave. She would then have succumbed to the flooding and sunk within a short period.

Media coverage[edit]

The loss of the München was featured in an edition of the BBC documentary series Horizon entitled "Freak Wave," which was first shown on November 14, 2002.

In 2003, the Science Channel created a documentary entitled Killer Waves which studied the disappearance of the München and concluded that a rogue wave was the most likely cause of her loss.

Contribution to case law[edit]

In 1981, the North Carolina Court of Appeals set a legal precedent that resulted from the loss of the München. In Rheinberg-Kellerei GMBH v. Vineyard Wine Co. 281 S.E.2d 425 (N.C. Ct. App. 1981), the court heard that 620 cases of wine, destined for Wilmington, North Carolina, were lost when the ship foundered. Rheinberg-Kellerei GMBH, which had produced and sold the wine, sued its North Carolina wine distributor, Vineyard Wine Co., for the purchase price of the lost shipment.

But the North Carolina Court of Appeals held that the German wine producer could not recover the purchase price. It decided the seller must bear the risk of loss when they fail to give "prompt notice" that the shipment has been dispatched. Without "prompt notice" that the shipment has been sent, the buyer is denied the opportunity to protect their goods, for example by obtaining insurance, against the risk of any loss, damage or theft. This appellate case is used as an example in many U.S. legal textbooks to illustrate the administration of the Uniform Commercial Code.

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References[edit]