Mazarine, the 31,314-ton Ro-Ro that grounded on Wolf Rock off Lands End, was successfully dry-docked on Monday afternoon in an operation involving the tugs St Piran, Cannis, Percuil and the SD Careful.

The 196-metre-long vessel was at the centre of a major search and rescue operation when it was drifting out of control south of Lands End following a complete blackout.

Only thanks to the consummate skill of Captain Mark Rickard, master of the Falmouth tug Mercia, and his crew was an environmental disaster and a shipwreck on the coast of Cornwall narrowly averted.

In a four-metre swell and with Mazarine drifting towards the shore at 3 knots Mark manoeuvred the Mercia under the bow of the ship to make fast the tow. A six man salvage team from Penryn-based KML and Seawide Services boarded the vessel to assist the crew.

After consulting with the management teams of Falmouth Harbour, A&P Falmouth, their marine operations managers, and the vessel’s owners, the Deputy SOS Rep Lisa McAuliffe authorised the tug and tow to enter Falmouth Bay for an underwater inspection by Seawide Services divers, which found significant bottom damage to the ship.

Repairing the Mazarine will be a major job for A&P Falmouth which has repaired CLdN ships many times before. The Luxembourg-based CLdN operate over 30 purpose-built RoRo (roll-on roll-off) ships making the company one of Europe’s largest short sea ship owners and operators with more than 200 sailings per week.

Falmouth Packet: The moment the Mazarine came close to hitting a 135-foot tall lighthouse at Wolf RockThe moment the Mazarine came close to hitting a 135-foot tall lighthouse at Wolf Rock (Image: SWNS)

The Mazarine incident will raise the question of an Emergency Towing Vessel (ETV) being stationed in south west waters again.

Emergency Towing Vessels (ETVs) were first introduced into service in 1994 on the recommendation of Lord Donaldson whose report into the prevention of pollution from merchant shipping followed the Braer and Sea Empress tanker disasters.

Initially there were two ETVs stationed at Dover and Stornoway for the winter months only, but following a further review in 2000, the fleet was increased to four, providing cover on a 24-hour, year-round basis.

The four tugs were stationed in the Dover Straits, the south west approaches, the Minches and the Fair Isle Channel In 1996, when the Sea Empress went aground off Milford Haven, the rescue was attempted by local harbour tugs from Milford Haven and not by ETVs. The result was 73,000 tonnes of oil spilt, with a clean-up bill of about £120 million.

In 2011 the Government axed the ETV for the south west. In evidence submitted to the Government at the time former Falmouth Harbour Master Captain Mark Samson argued that the role for an ETV is not simply a service to industry, but a service to the general public, saying: "This is actually the taxpayers of the UK wanting reassurance that there is a method to stop vessels going ashore on their beaches and causing environmental havoc, rather than the response of industry to actually salvage the property of individual ship owners."

Axing the four ETVs stationed around the UK coast would, it was forecast, save £32 million over four years. A paltry sum if you compare it to the cost of a major salvage operation and oil pollution clean up. In western Europe, government funded ETV fleets are in operation in Spain, Holland, Norway and Germany.

At the time lawyers felt that the decision would also be in breach of the environmental provisions of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, particularly article 98, which sets down a duty to render assistance to ships in distress, and article 194, which requires states to take “all measures” to “prevent, reduce and control pollution” by using “the best practicable means at their disposal”.

The UK government on the other hand was confident that there was sufficient salvage tug capacity within the commercial sector to cover areas such as the Dover Strait and the Western Approaches.

In recent years powerful salvage tugs in our waters have been few and far between - a point made when the Mercia was the only tug available within hundreds of miles.

In 2011 a spokesman for the Department for Transport said: “The government’s position remains that state provision of ETVs does not represent a correct use of taxpayers’ money and that ship salvage should be a commercial matter between a ship’s operator and the salvor.”

Only time will tell if an ETV is stationed off Cornwall - but I doubt it. Financial and incident statistics will probably sink the debate.