The Kodima freighter disaster sparked Cornwall’s biggest mass clean-up 20 years ago

Twenty years ago this week Cornish beaches became the scene of the biggest free salvage in Cornwall when thousands of tonnes of timber washed ashore after the cargo ship Kodima ran aground in stormy weather.

On February 1, 2002, the 6,395-tonne Malta-registered vessel was en route from Sweden to Libya when the stanchions securing its cargo of timber to the deck broke in stormy weather.

In her holds and on deck, the Kodima had 10,168 cubic meters of timber, but when the cargo began to shift, the ship developed a dangerous list and risked taking on water and sinking.

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The captain of the Russian-crewed vessel decided to head towards Falmouth to seek shelter.

By then the severe weather had turned into a force 8 and 9 storm and the ship began to roll heavily.

As the timber moved, the rolling became so severe that by the next morning the ship was registering at 40 degrees, while her main engine and generators were submerged and no longer working.

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With the Kodima about 20 miles from Falmouth, the captain put out a distress call and the 16 crew were rescued and airlifted to safety by search and rescue helicopters from RNAS Culdrose in Helston.

Lifeguards at the time attempted to secure a towline on board, but when that failed the Kodima was left adrift until it reached the sandy beach at Tregantle near Whitsand Bay on February 2, 2002.

The next day the beaches around the wreck to Plymouth were blocked with wooden blocks.

Soon, just about anyone who could walk was rushing down the cliffs to carry masses of wood to make shelters or to use as firewood. The police and coast guard issuing serious threats about what would happen to those they captured made no difference.

The timber-carrying Kodima ran aground off Whitsand Bay in south-east Cornwall on Sunday February 3, 2002.

Within hours, hundreds of scavengers were swarming the beach at Whitsand Bay to collect the wood that had washed ashore.

A group of design students from the University of Plymouth even created a three-story beach house, built entirely from reclaimed wood from the Kodima. It was later demolished after the former Caradon District Council (before Cornwall Council became a unitary authority) said it could pose a hazard and had no planning permission.

At the time, the cargo insurers gave up their property rights, concluding that it was not worth collecting the wood and paying a reward to the rescuers.

While the wood collection was going on on the beach, the Kodima was in dire straits. Huge waves were breaking over the stern flooding her engine room and it was impossible to get any of the rescue teams on board, so the tugs stood by and waited for better weather.

A man salvaging some of the timber from the Kodima, which ran aground off Whitsand Bay in south east Cornwall on Sunday February 3, 2002, resulting in tons of timber washing up on beaches in the area
A man salvaging some of the timber from the Kodima, which ran aground off Whitsand Bay in south east Cornwall on Sunday February 3, 2002, resulting in tons of timber washing up on beaches in the area

Meanwhile, a massive operation to rid Tregantle Beach of abandoned timber has been launched. At low tide, the bulldozer picked up the wood and took it to the pulp mills in huge trucks.

As the weather calmed down the tugs managed to pump out most of the fuel oil, get things fixed and on 16 February 2002 she was towed out at high tide and towed to Falmouth for repairs.

An investigation by the Marine Casualties Investigation Branch (MAIB) later found that several factors led to the ship dumping its timber cargo, with the crew partly to blame for the incident.

The report says the ship’s problems started when the cargo shifted in rough seas. He also revealed that the metal lashings securing the cargo had not been checked for 32 hours.

The report also pointed out that there was no way the cargo could have been thrown overboard and that this could have prevented the Kodima from running aground.

The MAIB then recommended to the International Maritime Organization that quick release systems be mandatory on cargo ships.

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