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Lost at sea: 4,000 cars burning on ship adrift in the Atlantic Ocean

The automotive marketplace has been untethered for months because of the lingering effects of microchip shortages. But for a niche group of about 4,000 potential upscale buyers, the situation worsened last week in an unusual place—the Atlantic Ocean.

And recreational vehicle owners with a penchant for Audi, Bentley, Lamborghini, Porsche or Volkswagen vehicles will likely have to wait even longer for their new wheels.

About 4,000 cars are board the Felicity Ace, current adrift and on fire in the Atlantic Ocean.
About 4,000 cars are on board the Felicity Ace, currently adrift and on fire in the Atlantic Ocean. Image courtesy of Portuguese Navy and distributed via Reuters.

According to insurance experts, an estimated 4,000 vehicles in transition from Germany to Rhode Island were cargo on the now-abandoned 656-foot Felicity Ace. It’s the ship that caught fire while carrying an estimated $401 million worth of cars and a total of $438 million in goods.

The vessel’s 22 crew members were evacuated without injuries via helicopter. But the fire continued to burn for several days, fueled by lithium-ion batteries in electric vehicles on board, according to a port official.

“These figures showed once again the precariousness of global supply chains,” said Suki Basi, managing director of Volkswagen, which owns Audi, Bentley, Lamborghini and Porsche. “The incident comes at a bad time for global carmakers, who are in the middle of a supply chain crisis sourcing semiconductors, resulting in new delays for new cars. An event like this will not do a great deal in instilling trust with consumers.”

The ship’s operator, MOL Ship Management (Singapore), said the vessel was “still assumed to remain on fire south of the Azores drifting further away from the islands.”

It said two firefighting tug boats were due to arrive at the site of the ship Monday and would “start spraying water to Felicity Ace together with the patrol boat with the initial salvage team onboard already on site to cool down the heat from the vessel.”

The company said the ship remained stable and was not leaking oil. Another salvage craft with firefighting equipment is set to arrive from Rotterdam on Feb. 26.

João Mendes Cabeças, captain of the nearest port in the Azorean island of Faial, told the news agency Reuters that lithium-ion batteries in the electric vehicles were “keeping the fire alive.”

According to the Providence Journal newspaper, more than 200,000 vehicles per year drive straight off massive vessels similar to the Felicity Ace and onto the asphalt at Davisville, Rhode Island, before being sent to dealerships throughout the Northeast.

North Atlantic Distribution Inc. runs one of the largest auto importing facilities in North America from the Davisville piers.

The Felicity Ace departed Emden, Germany, on Feb. 10 to begin its journey across the Atlantic. It is owned by Snowcape Car Carriers, a subsidiary of Mitsui O.S.K. Lines of Japan. Its future status hasn’t been determined.

About 670 large car carriers similar to the Felicity Ace are used worldwide.

In 2019, the ship Grande America caught fire and sank with four limited Porsche 911 GT2 RS, 33 other Porsches and about 2,000 new Audis on board while en route from Germany to South America. Porsche restarted production for the buyers of the four $300,000 GT2 RS vehicles.

James Raia, a syndicated columnist in Sacramento, California, publishes a free weekly automotive podcast and electronic newsletter. Sign-ups are available on his website, www.theweeklydriver.com. He can be reached via email: james@jamesraia.com.

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