Stricken Norwegian Frigate Has Almost Completely Sunk After Its Anchor Wires Snapped

It is increasingly unlikely that Norway's navy will be able to put the ship, which collided with an oil tanker last week, back in service.

Forsvaret

The Royal Norwegian Navy's frigate Helge Ingstad has almost completely sunk in the waters near the Sture oil and gas terminal outside of Bergen Norway. Norwegian authorities insist they still intend to salvage the warship, which suffered serious damage and was intentionally ran aground after colliding with the oil tanker Sola on Nov. 8, 2018, but the vessel's future looks increasingly bleak.

On Nov. 13, 2018, Rear Admiral Nils Andreas Stensoenes, head of Norway's navy, disclosed that multiple steel wires anchoring the Fridtjof Nansen-class frigate to the shore had snapped overnight. At present, only a portion of ship's main mast, which holds its advanced AN/SPY-1F radar, a key component of its version of the Aegis Combat System, along with a small portion of the rear superstructure, remain above the waterline. On Nov. 11, 2018, the Norwegian Armed Forces, or Forsvaret, had said the ship was "stable." Over the weekend, workers had also added two additional anchor wires between the vessel and the shore, for a total of seven.

"It is too early to say what kind of damages there are," Commander Haavard Mathisen, a Royal Norwegian Navy spokesperson, also said on Nov. 13, 2018, referring to the possibility of any additional damage from the sinking. Underwater video cameras had previously been in place to monitor the exterior of the portions of Helge Ingstad that were underwater. Salvage ships and remotely-controlled small submersibles had also been inspecting the frigate and mapping the seabed where it was sitting.

If additional internal compartments are now waterlogged, it is almost certain that they will need significant and potentially expensive work to return them to operational status. This is on top of the necessary repairs to the ship's badly damaged hull and other portions of its exterior, which will also be very costly. 

Norwegian Coastal Administration

An aerial shot showing the Helge Ingstad, at right, almost entirely underwater on Nov. 13, 2018.

The Royal Norwegian Navy's plan remains to try and refloat the frigate and get it on board one or more barges from private maritime company BOA, which would then move the warship to Haakonsvern, the service's main base, which is relatively close to the accident site. There is still no firm timeline about when authorities may move the ship or when, and if, Helge Ingstad might return to active service. At this point, the salvage operation may simply be focused on removing a hazard to navigation in a heavily trafficked fjord with the secondary hope that it may be possible to recover various weapons, radars, and other military systems for future use. Now that the ship is entirely underwater, even that seems less promising.

The Forsvaret's decision to hire BOA, over competitor Ardent Global Marine Services, to lead the salvage operation has come under scrutiny, as well. Ardent Global says it made an offer, but that it was rejected for being too expensive, according to Norwegian outlet AldriMer.no. Another nearby firm, Sotra Anchor & Chain, has criticized the decision to use wires instead of chains to secure the frigate to the shore, saying that the latter is the international standard for holding large ships in place after an accident.

Forsvaret

Wires hold the Helge Ingstad in place on Nov. 11, 2018.

Forsvaret

Workers attach additional anchor wires from Helge Ingstad to the shore on Nov. 11, 2018.

The official investigation into circumstances surrounding the mishap, which has sidelined one-fifth of Norway's Fridtjof Nansen-class indefinitely and forced the Royal Norwegian Navy to reassess its deployment schedules, is still ongoing. Authorities have been reluctant to provide any additional details, but, on Nov. 10, 2018, Norwegian outlet VG released audio of communications between Helge Ingstad, Sola, and maritime officials on shore, synced up with radar tracks showing the movement of the respective vessels in the moments leading up to the collision. 

The radio messages are all in Norwegian, but others have subsequently translated them into English. Together, the audio and radar images, which you can watch below, provide the clearest publicly available picture of what happened to date. 

After leaving Sture, the Sola's crew spots an unidentified vessel sailing with its Automatic Identification System transponder switched off on its own navigation radar. The tanker then asks the Fedje Maritime Traffic Center, or Fedje VTS, which oversees marine traffic in the fjord as a whole, to confirm that this ship was both real and headed their way. 

Nearly two minutes after the initial call, Fedje VTS informs Sola that the ship in question could be the Helge Ingstad. The tanker then makes contact with the frigate directly and demands that the warship immediately turn to starboard, or the right, to avoid a collision.  

The response from the Norwegian naval vessel is unclear. The individual on the radio acknowledges the request, but seems to offer an alternative course of action, using the word blokkene. Many have translated this, which literally means "blocks," to mean that whoever was at the helm of Helge Ingstad was concerned about hitting the shore had they turned to starboard. Blokkene is also reportedly a common Norwegian word for the port, or left side, of a ship.

It is possible that both interpretations are correct to some degree and that the frigate initially tried to move in the other direction. This would have eliminated the need to cross in front of the tanker and would not have positioned the ship closer to the shore and increase the risk of running aground unintentionally. Unfortunately, there were other ships in the channel and it could have quickly become apparent that there was not enough space to safely maneuver on the other side of the tanker.

Forsvaret

The state of Helge Ingstad as of Nov. 13, 2018.

The recording does not include anyone on board Helge Ingstad saying "we have everything under control," as had been previously reported. It is very possible that the two ships and the maritime traffic controllers are using more than one radio to communicate and we don't have the full extent of the discussions between the various parties. AldriMer.no noted that there are long pauses in the publicly available audio and a general lack of communication from Fedje VTS, which seem odd given the concerns about an imminent collision. 

Whatever happened, Helge Ingstad makes no apparent move to turn to starboard for almost a minute after receiving the initial radio call from Sola. A little over three minutes after the tanker first radioed Fedje VTS about the situation, the two ships collide.

Regardless of the circumstances, the loss of Helge Ingstad, even temporarily, is a major blow to the Royal Norwegian Navy, which relies on the Fridtjof Nansen-class as its primary surface combatants, especially in a time of increased tensions between Norway and its NATO allies and Russia. The frigate had been on its way back from a massive NATO-led exercise, called Trident Juncture, the largest such drill in decades, when the accident occurred.

If it turns out that Helge Ingstad is a total loss, which seems likely at this point, it could have a significant impact on Norwegian naval operations for years to come. In the meantime, we will continue to follow this story closely and provide any additional updates as they become available. 

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com