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‘Ridiculous’: company responsible for towing Hong Kong’s Jumbo Floating Restaurant dismisses allegations of foul play

‘Ridiculous’: company responsible for towing Hong Kong’s Jumbo Floating Restaurant dismisses allegations of foul play
Cannix Yau Park Chan-kyong and Edith Lin 24 Jun, 2022

Yoon Ju-dong, senior official of company which operated tugboat escorting Jumbo out of Hong Kong, says it was ‘an accident without any foul play involved’
Yoon rejects claims vessel might have been sunk intentionally, says towing crew are all South Koreans

The company responsible for towing Hong Kong’s ill-fated Jumbo Floating Restaurant has dismissed allegations of foul play as “ridiculous”, saying some buoyancy tanks might have been damaged by strong sea waves leading to the ship capsizing in the South China Sea.

Speaking to the Post from South Korea on Friday, Yoon Ju-dong, a senior official of a company which operated “Jaewon 9”, a tugboat escorting Jumbo out of Hong Kong, said what happened to the famed vessel was “an accident without any foul play involved”.

Jumbo left Hong Kong last week for a new home, but capsized near the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea over the weekend as it was being towed en route to Cambodia.

“After being towed for four or five days, she started tilting gradually before she capsized suddenly. If she had any structural problems, she would have gone down much earlier,” Yoon said.

Yoon insisted his company not be identified, only saying that it borrowed the tugboat from its registered owner S&P Marine Co in Busan, South Korea, for the tow. He dismissed allegations that the ship might have been sunk intentionally.

“That’s ridiculous. Our crew are all South Koreans. Had the shipowner wanted to do so, why would they hire Koreans in the first place? Do you think they could have convinced us all?” he asked.

Jumbo’s owner, Aberdeen Restaurant Enterprises, reported the capsizing on Monday. The incident has sparked widespread concern among Hongkongers, with conspiracy theories swirling that human error was a factor.

Yoon said some buoyancy tanks had been broken, probably by sea waves which caused water to enter and the ship eventually to turn over.

“The weather was not so ideal but it was not so bad either. The waves were no higher than two metres (6.5 feet) on the high seas,” he said.

“She has eight buoyancy tanks and I suspect some of them were battered by the sea waves. The boat was [very old] and the steel plate of the tanks might have become thin.

“This is a great loss for us as well, we have not yet been paid for the towing costs.”

Yoon pointed out the boat’s centre of gravity was very high, which caused it to be unstable structurally.

“Before the departure, the insurance company conducted a survey of both Jumbo and the tugboat, and gave us the green light for navigation,” he said.

He also dismissed the option of using a submerged tugboat for carrying Jumbo, a generally safer option, saying that would be 10 times more expensive so towing was the only way to bring it to its destination.

Jaewon 9, built in 1988 with a size of about 430 square metres and a capacity of 285 deadweight tonnage, encountered problems on December 13 last year when a vessel it was taking from Hong Kong to South Korea sank after the towing line connecting the two broke off in Penghu islands in Taiwan due to rough weather, according to global ship database FleetMon.

With “refloating attempts” affected by poor weather, the vessel was eventually “recognised as a total loss” because of the damage sustained, including numerous hull breaches, FleetMon added.

Jumbo’s fate remains unclear amid confusion over whether it has sunk or merely capsized. Its owner insisted on Thursday night it had capsized, but did not offer more details such as whether it was still above water or if it could be salvaged.

A spokeswoman for the owner said: “It is inaccurate to say that the vessel has sunk.”

First reports earlier this week said the vessel had sunk in 1,000 metres of water while under tow in the South China Sea en route to Cambodia.

The spokeswoman was asked why the company had said salvage work would be “extremely difficult” because of the depth of the water, but did not provide an answer and could not give the vessel’s exact location.

The change of tack came four days after the company on Monday revealed the incident, which happened on June 19.

Hong Kong marine authorities confirmed they had received a written report on the capsizing.

The Marine Department said Jumbo and Jaewon 9 remained in the vicinity of the Xisha Islands, or Paracel Islands.

The department told the Post the company might have breached Hong Kong regulations if it had failed to notify authorities within 24 hours of a sinking.

It explained that if a Hong Kong vessel sank, was stranded or disabled in Hong Kong waters or elsewhere, the owner, agent or captain had to notify the Marine Department within 24 hours.

Failure to give a reasonable excuse for not doing so is an offence and offenders could face a HK$10,000 (US$1,274) fine.

The department said Jumbo’s owner had not alerted Hong Kong officials before the media reported the incident. It added it had demanded a written report from the owner, which its agent submitted on Thursday, after it found out about the incident.

The department said the agent’s report revealed Jumbo was being towed by Jaewon 9 and had capsized in foul weather, adding the ship’s owner would continue to follow up on the incident.

A former Marine Department official, who preferred to remain anonymous, said it would be very difficult for Jumbo to stay afloat after capsizing.

“For us … there’s no difference between capsizing and sinking,” he said.

“It is very hard for it to stay afloat again as the buoyancy tanks are attached to the bottom of the ship while its upper structure is without buoyancy. When water gets in with the upper structure being overturned, this will exert downward force from above, pushing the ship to sink.”

He said Jumbo was a local ship with weak seaworthiness and not designed for sailing on the high seas. “It needs to sail in a smooth sea to be able to reach its destination unscathed,” he said.

The owner said on Monday that the vessel, built in the style of an imperial palace, hit “adverse conditions” and “water soon entered before it began to tip”.

The company added: “Despite the efforts of the towing company responsible for the trip to rescue the vessel, unfortunately it capsized on Sunday.

“No crew members were injured in the incident. As the water depth at the scene is over 1,000 metres [3,300 feet], it makes it extremely difficult to carry out salvage works”.

The statement added that Aberdeen Restaurant Enterprises, an arm of listed gaming firm Melco International Development, was “very saddened” by the incident and had asked for more information from the towing firm.

Melco’s chairman and CEO is Lawrence Ho Yau-lung, the 46-year-old son of late Macau tycoon Stanley Ho Hung-sun, who opened the Cantonese and seafood restaurant in 1976.

The 46-year-old vessel left Hong Kong last Tuesday.

The owners said the firm could no longer afford to maintain it in the city.

The restaurant suspended operations in 2020 after it suffered losses of HK$100 million because of the social unrest of 2019 and the Covid-19 pandemic that followed. The spokeswoman for Aberdeen Restaurant Enterprises on Thursday night said it had submitted a report and would cooperate with the Marine Department.

The department earlier revealed it had given approval for the vessel to be moved to Cambodia.

Ship-tracking website Vessel Finder logged that Jaewon 9 was expected to arrive in Cambodia on June 27 and had been zigzagging near the Paracels.

Professor Stephen Li Yiu-kwong, of Polytechnic University’s department of logistics and maritime studies, said such movements might not be considered abnormal because a tugboat would “manoeuvre around the vessel to cater to its needs”.

Li also said it was normal to pass the Paracels and that the captain would choose which route best suited the conditions after factors such as wave strength were taken into account.

The owner announced late last month that the restaurant would move away from Hong Kong for repairs and storage because of a lack of funds for maintenance.

It said millions of dollars a year had been spent on inspections, repairs and maintenance and that it was a “heavy financial burden” in the present economic environment.

The restaurant attracted international and Hong Kong celebrities including Britain’s Queen Elizabeth and film stars such as Tom Cruise and Chow Yun-fat in its heyday.

The drama surrounding the famed tourist attraction attracted global attention.

Media outlets around the world reported the vessel had sunk and in Hong Kong there was widespread concern over whether Jumbo could be salvaged.

Additional reporting by Rachel Yeo