PORT officials were warned about the safety of having two huge oil drilling vessels berthed off the North Ayrshire coast two weeks before one broke free from its moorings threatening a "disaster" near a nuclear plant, the Herald on Sunday can reveal.

A mayday call was was received by the coastguard on Tuesday evening when a 748ft long ship with eight crew aboard broke from its mooring and began to drift without power amidst high winds.

One community councillor from the nearby village of Fairlie told the Herald on Sunday that only a "miracle" prevented this from being "an absolute catastrophe with multiple loss of life" near the Hunterston B nuclear plant.

The local community council raised concerns about safety to Peel Ports, one of the UK's largest port operators which operates the Clydeport facilities on January 21, saying that there had been an earlier "emergency" alert because of a berthing issue.

Peel Ports, which is responsible for the former coal-handling port site has indicated that there will be a panel of inquiry.

During the incident a second ship moored at the terminal also required assistance and was held in position by tug boats.

The Marine Accident Investigation Branch said on Friday that it was notified on what it called "an ongoing situation" and has been "monitoring" rather than investigating.

Noah Ship Management, the technical managers of the drilling ship, said the quayside moorings failed in high winds.

HeraldScotland:

Concerns were first raised after the huge Valaris DS4 and DS8 drillships arrived in the narrow waters between the mainland and the Isle of Cumbrae at the end of last year.

In August, last year, Valaris Plc, the largest offshore drilling and well drilling company in the word, with the world's largest fleet, became a casualty of the global slump in oil prices, filing for bankruptcy as it sought to restructure roughly $7 billion in debt.

When the drilling vessels arrived at Hunterston, there was concern that they were being 'dumped' on Scotland and Fairlie Community Council in its warning on safety feared there would be "no prospective work for these vessels in the near future."

The rig owner’s last fleet status report, published back in April 2020, shows that the drillship had been 'preservation stacked' in Spain - meaning that it was lying idle.

London-based Valaris, at the time of filing for bankruptcy said the debt restructuring efforts were not expected to affect its day-to-day operations.

In a letter to Peel Ports' Clydeport director Jim McSporran, the community council warned that the overall length of the two ships exceeded the jetty head length and approximately half the length of the DS4 "is projecting beyond the main structure and appears to be using the mooring dolphin as a berthing dolphin".

"We are concerned, that a jetty, berthing two huge and potentially polluting vessels, is not being overseen adequately," the council told Mr McSporran.

"We believe that in the interests of safety, there should be somebody 'able' supervising the jetty, advising skeleton crews etc. as to safe berthing."

The council told Peel Ports in the January 21 letter that they believed that there was a recent incident where tugs were put on emergency alert because of a berthing ropes issue.

And it raised concerns that it seemed there was "nobody in overall charge at the jetty".

One community councillor David Telford, raised concerns with North Ayrshire councillor Ian Murdoch on January 20 talking about the "scare" claiming that berthing ropes had not been adjusted to deal with the changing tides and other weather conditions.

HeraldScotland:

Mr Telford said: "The community council has been concerned about the safety of these drill ships since the day they arrived at Hunterston. "As a coastal community there is a lot of local experience concerning ships and shipping. The Hunterston port was originally designed to handle bulk iron ore and then coal. It is not really designed to safely accommodate any other types of shipping without major alteration and renovation.

"The way the two drill ships were technically moored, with anchors deployed, together with the windage and tonnage of the vessels simply looked extremely unsafe to the trained eye.

"The incident on Tuesday night could have been absolutely catastrophic. The principal concern was a drifting ship hitting the cooling water intake of the Hunterston B nuclear power station. Only extreme good luck prevented absolute disaster.

"A letter was sent to Mr McSporran expressing various concerns, including the safety of the berthing, but did not receive a reply."

Nor, he said, was there any response from North Ayrshire Council about concerns raised about the safety of these ships.

There were no reports of any injuries or pollution as a result of the Tuesday's incident involving a vessel which has a displacement of 96,000 tonnes and is used for deep water drilling operations.

Coastguard rescue officers from Largs, Ardrossan, Ayr, Greenock and Cumbrae, a Coastguard rescue helicopter, the Largs and Troon Lifeboats and several tug boats were called to assist the operation.

It was expected the ship would be moved back to the quayside when the weather improves.

A statement issued by Noah Ship Management, said at the time:  "A crew of eight, including a Master and Chief Engineer, are on board to work with the local authorities and Marine Coastguard Agency to prepare for the return of the vessel to the lay-up berth once the weather improves. The [drillship] is anchored some 150/200 meters off the berth. There were no injuries or pollution.

"The vessel remains in position in the Hunterston Channel, safely anchored and with her engines and thrusters operational, should they be required."

According to AIS vessel finder tracking service the drillship arrived from Las Palmas to the UK at the end of December 2020.

Originally built in 2010 by Samsung Heavy Industries, it was originally delivered to Pride International under the name of Deep Ocean Clarion. Drilling contractor Ensco in 2011 bought out Pride, renaming the deepwater drillship to Ensco DS-4.

The vessel was then renamed Valaris DS4 following the merger between Rowan and Ensco in 2019 when the company was renamed Valaris.

The company in April 2020 said it would stack three drillships, a semisubmersible, and five jack-ups for eventual return to service and retire 11 other drillships. According to the company's fleet status report released in April 2020, the Valaris DS-4 was one of the rigs being 'preservation stacked'.

The company last year said it could take up to two years to reactivate idle rigs.

Initial concerns for locals from the drillships was about the noise with the jetty just 900 metres across water from the village of Fairlie.

Mr Murdoch in an email said he had "raised the arrival of the ships" with the chief executive Craig Hatton before Christmas. The initial concerns he had in an email was about noise.

Local councillors said that for 25 days, 24/7 they were subjected to "unrelenting" generator noise.

They also raise concerns that the two Marshall Islands-registered vessels were sitting in the "beautiful waters of the Clyde "pumping out diesel exhaust 24 hours a day because the port owner has not taken the trouble to install shore power facilities prior to their arrival".

In a letter to Peel Ports, the council said it "is not one I would like to explain" at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow in November.

In response to the noise, Mr McSporran said: "We are addressing concerns over the use of generators to supply power to the two vessels, and are working with the ships and a firm of electrical engineers to design a shore power option.

"I would point out that generator use is standard practice in ports throughout the UK.

"In addition we are currently monitoring noise levels at Fairlie foreshore and other locations, and comparing them to historical data to ensure they are kept within acceptable parameters."

A Peel Ports spokesman said: “One of two drill ships berthed at Hunterston Pier parted from its berth during extremely high winds on Tuesday evening. The vessel currently remains anchored in the same position.

“As an ongoing maritime incident, and as a multi-agency investigation involving ourselves as the harbour authority, the Maritime & Coastguard Agency and others, we are unable to comment on findings at this time. When the report is concluded and the incident finalised, we will be in a position to form a panel of enquiry.”

A North Ayrshire Council spokesperson said: “Although we have no statutory remit in relation to maritime operations at Hunterston, Fairlie Community Council copied us into a letter they sent to Peel Ports in relation to the vessels at Hunterston jetty. This was solely for our information. We continue to remain in regular contact with the appropriate authorities to monitor the ongoing situation.”

Valaris was approached for comment.