Naval Air: November 10, 2001

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The Aircraft Carrier Varyag: Beijing's "Flying Dutchman"?- "Jonahs" are ships cursed by bad luck; the Flying Dutchman, the Marie Celeste, and now, the 305-meter-long Varyag.

The Varyag is the sister ship of the Admiral Kuznetso (Russia's only aircraft carrier, presently serving with the Northern Fleet). Originally designed to serve the Soviet Navy, the Varyag had been under construction at the Ukraine's Nikolayev South (formerly Shipyard 444) since 1985. The Ukraine inherited the 70% finished flattop when the Soviet Union fell apart, but couldn't afford to complete her. The 56,000-ton empty, 65,000 tons loaded white elephant was sold to a Macau-based company on 1 March 1998, which hoped to transform it into a floating casino. She lacked engines, a rudder and much of her operating systems. 

A Dutch tug with a Filipino crew was hired to take the Varyag on it's epic voyage, but the ship spent 16 months circling the Black Sea since Turkey feared an accident in the straits. On 1 November 2001, Turkey finally relented from it's position that the vessel posed too great of a danger to bridges across the narrow Bosphorus strait and to Istanbul.

Escorted by as many as 27 vessels (including 11 tug boats and three pilot boats), she took six hours to pass through the winding strait. A normal oil tanker could make the same trip in 1.5 hours. The Russian press reported that 16 pilots and 250 seamen were involved. At 11:45 AM on the 2nd, she completed her passage from Gelibolu and made towards Canakkale at 5.8 knots. 

On 3 November, she was caught in a Force 9-10 gale and broke lose from her tugboats as she was passing the Greek island of Skiros (about 12 miles west of the island of Lesbos). The carrier drifted in international waters near the Aegean Sea island of Skyros, but was not in any immediate danger of sinking or running aground. At 0340 GMT, Coast Guard ships were reporting difficulty securing the vessel. A Greek frigate sped to the area, 1 kilometer off the island of Skyros. 

Turkish and Greek sea rescue workers spent virtually the entire day trying to corral the hulk, which was drifting toward the island of Evia but still about 50 miles (or eight hours) from the nearest shoreline. The seven-member crew (three Russians, three Ukrainians and one Filipino) originally remained on board as six tugboats tried to reestablish their tow lines. 

However, a Greek coast guard rescue helicopter landed on Varyag and picked up four of the seven crew after many attempts to reattach the lines. One tug boat managed to reattach itself to the ship later in the day, but a Greek marine ministry official said high winds were severely hampering efforts by two other tugs to secure the ship. 

On the 6th, a sailor from the tugboat Haliva Champion died after a fall while attempting to reattach the tow ropes. Aries Lima, 43, was reported as both Dutch and Portuguese.

After taking 14 hours to regain control of the runaway, the tugs proceeded at 3 miles (5 km) per hour towards the Suez Canal. If Egypt permits passage through the Suez Canal, the Varyag should pass near India's shores in early December. Another hazard could be passage under tow through the relatively narrow Malacca Straits between Indonesia and Malaysia.

While unlikely that China wants to actually complete the Varyag, many naval experts expect Beijing to reverse engineer many of the aircraft carrier's subsystems. - Adam Geibel

 


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