All “Foched up” with No Place to Go? The Troubled Tow of the Aircraft Carrier São Paulo/Foch

The crew of the Dutch deep-sea tug ALP Centre must be thoroughly tired of their latest charge, the 60-year old French aircraft carrier Foch, which served a second career in the Marinha do Brasil (Brazilian Navy) as the NAe São Paulo. Towing decommissioned carriers is always a demanding task. But the tow of this 870-foot long/270 m, 33,000-ton hulk started in controversy, which snowballed into a SNAFU of impressive proportions off the coast of Africa. Now back in Brazilian waters, and tethered to what some groups describe as a contaminated, environmental “time-bomb,” the crew must feel that they have been well and truly “Foched” this time.

NAe SAO PAULO A-12 (foreground) in formation with USS Ronald Reagan CVN-76, 2004 near San Diego. NARA: 330-CFD-DN-SD-05-02977 PH1 John Lill.

The ALP Centre, one of a fleet of eight similar ships, was supposed to deliver the giant hulk to the shipbreakers at Aliaga, Turkey. Commencing towing operations, it left the carrier’s longtime home port of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 4 August, 2022 on a planned 6,000 mile/ 9,650 km journey.

ALP Centre, Tug / Anchor Handling Vessel, showing enormous tow apparatus aft of the deckhouse. Nieuwe Waterweg, Netherlands, 2016. Credit: kees torn, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Even as the tug and its charge left port, forces were mobilizing to halt this delivery. A court injunction attempted to prevent the former flagship from leaving Brazilian waters. The story is fairly complicated, but there is concern that the old carrier is riddled with asbestos, PCBs, and other contaminants, and that the hull may still be irradiated from the ship’s presence at the 1966 series of nuclear tests in French Polynesia. The Turkish shipbreaking corporation that now owns the carrier also reportedly did not file the right documents inventorying hazardous waste, and the hulk’s maritime insurance may also have lapsed. Groups in Brazil, Turkey, and across the Mediterranean are protesting that this is a violation of several international agreements restricting transboundary shipments of hazardous materials, notably the Basel and Barcelona Conventions.

Later that month, the tug was nearing the coast of West Africa, when, on 26 August, the Turkish government announced the carrier was barred from its waters, for the time being, and that the vessel should have returned from international waters to Brazil, based on the injunction. The federal Brazilian agency that had approved the shipment, the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA), had to order an immediate return. The ALP Centre was moving North through the Canary Islands and approaching the Straits of Gibraltar, seeking to enter the Mediterranean Sea. It also seemed unlikely that they would be permitted to transit the territorial waters of Spain, Morocco, or Great Britain at the Straits. The tug slowly turned back 8 September.

The course initially set would have taken the pair all the way back to Rio. At the end of September, the tug turned North near the remote Ilha Martin Vaz islands. We were able to locate the pair with some effort a few days later, with the tow line stretching about 1200 meters / 0.75 of a mile between the ships.

ALP Centre towing São Paulo North towards Suape, with about 250 km left to go, 4 Oct. 2004.

The new destination was Suape Port, near Recife, Pernambuco State, Brazil, 1,850 kilometers / 1,150 miles NNW of Rio. For a time it was also escorted North by the Brazilian Navy’s Amazonas class corvette NPAoC Apa (P-121). ALP Centre arrived off the port 4 October.

A Google Earth rendering of an Amazonas class corvette docked at Ilha de Mocanguê, Rio de Janeiro.

As we have illustrated elsewhere, the process of dismantling the World’s largest warships is often full of protests, conflict, drama, and bankruptcies. Still, this botched transit is eerily similar to what occurred seventeen years ago when French authorities attempted to dispose of Foch’s sistership, Clemenceau.

Clemenceau at Brest in 2008, in between scrapping voyages. Credit: Moreau.henri [CC BY-SA]

The decommissioned Clemenceau had been sold in 2005 to an Indian company to be dismantled at the massive shipbreaking operation at Alang. The Indian Government had concerns about hazardous materials onboard. Protests erupted around the early 2006 voyage from Toulon, France, to India. Greenpeace and anti-asbestos groups raised concerns about discrepancies in the total amount of tons of asbestos removed in earlier decontamination efforts. The tow was briefly halted by Egyptian authorities, concerned about it transiting the Suez Canal. It was also boarded by activists. After all this, denied entry to Indian waters, while it was in the Arabian Gulf, France’s State Council ordered the ship back. It returned to Brest by rounding Africa. Despite similar community fears of an impending environmental or public health catastrophe, Clemenceau was safely scrapped 2009-2010 near Hartlepool, UK, by the specialized firm Able UK. However, the outcry about the ship’s asbestos appears to have been justified, as hundreds of tons of asbestos was indeed remediated during the dismantling.

Now, three months in to this tow, ALP Centre is waiting for permission to enter the port, and a pilot to guide it in. It is tracking slowly through enormous loops and figure-eights, just barely making headway outside the breakwater. The crew are keeping the tow of their enormous and troublesome charge, São Paulo/Foch, manageable.

We are awaiting details of the next disposal plan. Suape is a busy port, with large shipyards, repair facilities and berths that could probably host the dismantlement of the old flagship. If the fate of Clemenceau is the precedent, safe dismantlement will be a costly process requiring a specialized workforce.

The Dossier:

The two Clemenceau-class carriers, at 869-feet / 264.9 m long with a full displacement of 32,800 tons, were an impressive entry for France into postwar carrier construction. They had modern aviation facilities and the design supported a new generation of jet aircraft. They were named for famous civilian and military leaders of the Third Republic, important to France’s efforts during the First World War: Georges Clemenceau and Marshal Ferdinand Foch. Starting in 1961, the ships replaced smaller and well-used carriers which had formerly served in the wartime Royal Navy. Foch joined “Clem” in 1963. The sisters were the staple of Cold War French naval aviation, and participated in a series of military actions in former French colonies, along with routine participation in NATO maritime groups. During the 1990s, they continued to be on hand to support Peacekeeping operations, while Clemenceau participated in the First Gulf War. For the submarine movie enthusiasts who seem to be some of our frequent visitors, we’d like to point out Foch’s cameo appearance in the 1995 movie Crimson Tide, standing in for a US carrier.

Foch R-99 during Exercise Dragon Hammer 1992 NARA: 330-CFD-DN-ST-92-08605 PHC Jack C. Bahm

Nearing the millennium, the carriers were showing their age and a new and nuclear-powered flagship, Charles de Gaulle, had supplanted them. Clemenceau left service in 1997, and was laid up at Brest. Foch soldiered on until 2000, and was then sold to Brazil.

Charles de Gaulle on multinational exercises in the Indian Ocean May 2019 US Navy Official 5390681 SA Leonard Adams

For Brazil, the old carrier helped keep the fixed-wing naval aviation program afloat (literally), as the much older NAeL Minas Gerais, Brazil’s veteran carrier, had exceeded the limits of its 1942 Light Fleet Carrier design, and was worn-out.

This remarkable view shows the former NAeL Minas Gerais in May, 2004, immediately before she was run up on the beach at Alang, India, for scrapping. This earlier scrapping effort seems to have not raised the same types of concerns.

Unfortunately, the newly-commissioned NAe São Paulo suffered from maintenance issues almost from the outset, and its air complement of AF1 Skyhawk fighter jets was frequently grounded ashore. This limited regular training. The ship also suffered two major shipboard fires, which further limited flight training and operations and generally kept it under repairs for an unreasonable amount of time.

Some of the air complement of AF1 Skyhawk fighter jets, with an Argentine S2 Turbo Tracker about to take off. (Brazil had agreed to assist the Argentine Navy’s air arm, who since the 1990s have not had a carrier) and AF1 Skyhawks. TurboCredit: Rob Schleiffert, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

By 2016, the Navy had had enough, and the British helicopter landing ship HMS Ocean (only 20 years old by comparison) was transferred in 2018 and commissioned as the new flagship PHM Atlântico.

PHM Atlântico A-140 2018. Marinha do Brasil / CC BY-SA

After decommissioning, São Paulo followed a pretty conventional trajectory for retired carriers: some groups tried to save it as a museum ship; the costs of maintaining the out-of-service ship added up; scrapping became the preferred option. In March 2021 the carrier was sold to Sök Denizcilik, a leading scrapping firm based at Aliaga, Turkey. Environmental groups and also communities in Turkey near Aliaga denounced the plan and have expressed the fear that scrapping the old ship would cause an environmental catastrophe.