By JASON STRAZIUSO, Associated Press
VICTORIA, Seychelles (AP) — A disabled cruise ship will have spent an extra 10 to 12 hours at sea without electricity, air conditioning or toilet facilities because a French fishing vessel that was first to respond to the drifting cruiser refused to give way to faster tug boats, a Seychelles government official said Wednesday.
A spokesman for the cruise line denied that the tow would have been faster with the tugs and said the disabled cruise ship was always scheduled to reach the Seychelles' main port on Thursday.
The head of the France-based company which owns the tuna boat pulling the limping ship said the cruise line was the sole decision-maker.
The government minister, Joel Morgan, told The Associated Press that the cruise ship Costa Allegra likely would have arrived in port Wednesday night local time if the tugs had been allowed to take over. Instead, the ship is not scheduled to reach port until midmorning Thursday.
"The Seychelles authorities are not happy about this situation and we would have wished to get the ship into port as soon as possible in order to ensure the safety and well-being of the passengers," said Morgan, Seychelles minister of home affairs, environment, transport and energy.
Morgan said that when the Seychelles tugs met up with the Costa Allegra on Tuesday, a "conversation" took place to see the fishing vessel Trevignon step aside and the faster tugs move in.
"The discussion went on for quite a while to no avail," he said.
Davide Barbano, a Costa spokesman, denied that the tow would have been faster with the two tugs.
"It was decided to continue with that (the fishing vessel) because it guaranteed the smoothest voyage for those on board," he said.
Morgan said the Seychelles is not happy that the financial objectives of the French vessel were put ahead of the interests of the passengers. Morgan claimed the French vessel has been towing at 4 nautical miles, whereas the tugs could have traveled at 6 to 7 nautical miles. Barbano said the fishing vessel was traveling at around 6 nautical miles, "depending on the sea conditions."
The director of France's Regional Operational Center for Surveillance and Rescue, or CROSS, said maritime rules allowed the French fishing vessel to continue with the towing job.
"We were in a rescue operation, the tuna boat arrived first. Then there are negotiations as one can imagine," said Nicolas Le Bianic, in the French department of Reunion. Any assistance to people is free, not the case here, he said. "Assistance to the boat, in contrast, is paid. That's the rule of principle set by maritime texts."
Le Bianic estimated the towing journey at some 500 kilometers (about 300 miles or about 260 nautical miles).
The situation on the Costa Allegra since a fire in the generator room killed the ship's power has been difficult, Morgan said.
"The sanitary facilities are not working, so there's no toilets, no showers," he said. "It's not very convenient right now."
The Genoa, Italy-based Costa said the Allegra would arrive at about 9 a.m. local time Thursday (0500 GMT, midnight EST) — three days after the ship lost power and began drifting in the Indian Ocean. However, the ship's estimated arrival at port has been pushed back repeatedly, and the spokeswoman for the Seychelles president said late Wednesday that the Costa may not arrive until as late as noon.
Jean-Yves Labbe, the director-general of the French Company of Ocean Tuna, based in the Breton port of Concarneau, said the Trevignon and a second tuna boat, the Talenduic, were first on the scene, the closest vessels in a region of little maritime traffic. They were called in by CROSS, handling the rescue alert.
The company signed a technical assistance contract with the Costa, Labbe said, refusing to divulge its value. While the Trevignon pulled the cruise liner, the Talenduic accompanied the convoy.
"The decision-maker is the Costa company," Labbe stressed numerous times during the telephone interview. "We didn't insist on anything."
"If the Costa owners told us, 'thank you for your services'" and asked the tuna boats to move on, "we would have done so." He noted that all contracts have a termination clause.
Italy's Coast Guard said that a team from the Infrastructure and Transport Ministry's investigative unit has traveled to the Seychelles capital island of Mahe with the Italian Coast Guard to do "the first assessment" of how the fire started.