Opposition questions why cruise ship is allowed to drift as owner laments losses

The co-owner of a Russian cruise ship adrift in the North Atlantic said his attempt to salvage the derelict vessel has ruined him as the federal Opposition questioned why it was ever allowed to be towed in the dead of winter.

NDP transport critic Olivia Chow said that Transport Canada never should have permitted the Lyubov Orlova to be towed out of port in St. John’s, N.L.

“Just because the ship is now drifting in international waters, it’s still the Canadian government that gave it the authority to tow the ship,” Chow said in an interview.

The empty cruise ship was being pulled to the Dominican Republic for scrap when its tow line snapped in rough seas on Jan. 24.

Efforts to reattach the cable failed, and Transport Canada ordered the tugboat Charlene Hunt back to port a few days later.

An offshore supply ship from Husky Energy was sent to tow the Lyubov Orlova away from oil platforms last week before a vessel chartered by Transport Canada took over.

However, the department said the towing operating was hampered by poor weather and the vessel was allowed to drift into international waters.

“Transport Canada, in consultation with its partners, decided not to pursue the drifting vessel as there are no people aboard the ship and there was a serious concern for the safety of Canadian sailors involved in the salvage operation,” spokeswoman Celine Gaudet wrote in an email.

She said the Canadian Coast Guard installed a tracking device on the cruise ship, and government surveillance flights would also monitor its location.

Transport Canada has said the ship is not expected to re-enter Canadian waters and the owners of the ship remain responsible for its movements.

Reza Shoeybi said he and his uncle Saeed Shoaibi, both of Toronto, became co-owners of the Lyubov Orlova after Hussein Humayuni, a family friend and Iranian scrap merchant, bought the ship for $275,000 in a Federal Court process last year in Montreal.

Shoeybi said Humayuni struggled with the payments and that the other two men invested a total of more than $400,000 getting the vessel ready to be towed to the Dominican Republic for scrap, and they expected to make between $700,000 and $800,000 depending on metals markets.

It wasn’t ideal to set out in mid-winter but Shoeybi, 32, said he felt pressured to get the vessel out of the harbour as soon as possible or risk having it seized by the courts.

“It has ruined me,” Shoeybi said Tuesday while aboard the Charlene Hunt, which remains docked in St. John’s harbour.

“I don’t have anything else. I’ve lost 12 years of my savings.”

The Lyubov Orlova was insured for US$850,000 but only for a total loss while under tow, he added.

Shoeybi said he has tried to partner with another tow company but the vessel is now about 560 kilometres east of St. John’s, floating northeast at almost four kilometres an hour, he said.

“Considering where the location is and the winds … she’s not going to be hitting anything, unless a miracle happens, for another two months.

“She’s in the open water heading … between Iceland and Ireland. She might even end up in Russia. You never know.”

Chow said the federal Conservatives have a history of washing its hands of orphaned vessels, citing the case of the MV Miner off Nova Scotia.

The bulk carrier ran aground on Scaterie Island off Cape Breton in September 2011 while being towed to a scrapyard in Turkey. Neither the federal nor provincial governments have been willing to take responsibility for the wreck.

“We see a pattern of shirking responsibility,” said Chow. “And when accidents happen, the Conservative government walks away.”

Transport Minister Denis Lebel was not available for comment.

The Transportation Safety Board sent two investigators to St. John’s last week, but has not yet committed to a formal investigation into how the vessel broke free from the American tug.

Kevin Hunt of Hunt Tugs and Barges Inc. in Rhode Island said his company is the owner of the Charlene Hunt. But he said the company entered into a charter agreement with the owners of the Lyubov Orlova last October to sell the tug and his company wasn’t involved with any efforts to tow the cruise ship to the Dominican Republic.

“I didn’t know anything about any of this,” he said. “I heard something, but I didn’t know the name of the ship, I didn’t know the plans.”

Hunt said the decision to pull a cruise ship in the North Atlantic in January wasn’t “too bright.”

“I think if they had nice weather, the right tow gear, I think they would have made it,” he said.

Gaudet said in her email that it’s up to a vessel’s flag state to issue a safety certificate.

However, she said the Charlene Hunt was inspected at the port in Halifax last November as per the department’s Port State Control program. Another inspection is due in September.

The Lyubov Orlova was a popular Arctic cruise ship before Canadian authorities seized it in St. John’s in September 2010 as part of a lawsuit by Cruise North Expeditions against its Russian owners. The company was trying to recoup cash for the cost of a trip it cancelled due to technical problems.

The ship sat in the harbour for more than two years before being bought. It was recently refitted to hold 110 passengers, down from 237, Shoeybi said.

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said the tow line snapped Jan. 23.