Meet Bjørn Hjelvik, the former ship captain that once capsized in 1989
Bjørn ended his career as captain of Normand Sapphire in 2022. However, not many people are aware of the incident that occurred in 1989, when Bjørn and his father were on board the M/S Eiketrål that capsized. In 2022, Bjørn seized the opportunity to witness the shipwreck firsthand with an ROV.
Bjørn is a 60-year-old man residing on Eika, an island outside Ålesund, Norway. He has spent almost his entire career at sea. He retired from his position as captain at AHTS Normand Sapphire in November 2022 after 15 years on board the ship. He has spent half his career within fisheries, and half his year in the offshore industry, working both in shipyards and onboard ships.
Bjørn started working at Greenyard Kleven, formed Kleven Mek, in Ulsteinvik when he was 16 years old, and started working at sea at the age of 18. He remained in the maritime industry until reaching retirement age. He speaks fondly of his many fortunate experiences, including traveling to New Zealand, Russia, Iceland and Greenland while working at the fishery. Later, when he pursued a career within the offshore industry, he travelled to UK, many European countries, Africa and the US.
Despite being away from home for extended periods, Bjørn has always enjoyed life at sea. He acknowledges that seafarers have two families – one at home and one at sea – and that they often spend more time with their colleagues than with their actual families. Nevertheless, he regards it as a lifestyle choice and has no regrets.
The shipwreck of M/S Eiketrål in 1989
In 1987, Bjørn purchased a fishing trawler and named her M/S Eiketrål. On December 5th, 1989, he had a brief two-day break from work and planned to run some errands with his father in the Ålesund area, including picking up an oil drum.
“On our way back, we had covered a considerable distance when the boat started to exhibit abnormal behavior. It was constantly bobbing and suddenly failing to maintain stability in the water. As I investigated the issue, I realized that the stern of the boat was sinking rapidly. Despite my attempts to send a mayday distress signal, I was unable to complete it before the boat eventually capsized,” he tells.
When Bjørn got his head above water, the first thing he noticed was that the boat was upside down and he couldn’t see any signs of his father. It was mid-winter, the clock was approaching 3 pm in the afternoon, it was getting dark, and visibility was decreasing.
“I was terrified that my father was trapped under the boat unable to come up for air. Fortunately, he emerged from the water after a short while, but he was injured from being trapped under the boat and struggling to get up to the surface,” he explains.
As everything happened so quickly, they were unable to grab life jackets before the boat capsized. Only a few items from the boat floated to the surface, including the oil drum they had collected in Ålesund just hours earlier. As a result, they both held on to the oil drum, using it as a floating device while waiting for help.
“Even though we didn’t have time to send a complete mayday signal before the accident, nearby ships still picked up the signal. We waited in the icy water for 22 minutes before the rescue boat Amerika finally located us. By the time we were rescued, we were so cold that we couldn’t stand upright, and my father was so cold that an ambulance was waiting for him on land,” he tells.
The evening of the accident and the following days were filled with enquiries from local and national news outlets. He decided to do an interview with the local newspaper Sunnmørsposten, which published a detailed article about the incident.
“My father returned to work offshore almost immediately after the accident, but it took two months before I returned to work, due to the ship I worked on being at shipyard stay. My first trip after the accident was sailing toward New Zealand. When we encountered rough weather in the English Channel. I went without sleep for two days out of fear every time a wave came. I told the rest of the crew that I would never return to the ocean once we reached the shore. Suddenly, we had six weeks of beautiful weather,” he says and continues:
“I’m grateful that I went back to sea so soon after the accident. It was a rough start, but the good weather made all the difference, and I haven’t been afraid since.”
An emotional experience with Solstad’s ROV
In 2007, during the construction of the AHTS Normand Sapphire, Bjørn worked as a building inspector. Two years later, in 2009, an ROV (remotely operated underwater vehicle) was added to the vessel’s equipment. While traveling along the Sunnmøre coastline on their way to and from work, they frequently passed by the location where the M/S Eiketrål had sunk in 1989.
“Although I often considered using the ROV to dive down and take a look, it never progressed beyond just a thought as we were always on the move and there was a lack of time,” he says.
During January 2022, the vessel and the crew were in the Ålesund area and had recently swapped out the ROV. On January 31st, while enroute to a location with deep waters to do a test dive with the new equipment, there was talk of the shipwreck and the accident that happened more than 30 years earlier.
“I made a promise to myself that if the opportunity ever presented itself, I would not miss the chance to dive and explore the shipwreck. So, I approached the helmsman and pointed out the location on the map where I believed the shipwreck was located,” he tells.
To his amazement, the ROV dove down and swam 50 meters before colliding with the wreck, confirming its location.
“Initially, I was unsure if the wreck was truly M/S Eiketrål, but as I started to recognize the trawl drum, shrimp broiler and the rescue raft, it became an incredibly emotional and surreal experience,” he tells.
The discovery of the sunken boat that Bjørn bought as a 27-year-old, marked a touching ending to his career.
“Solstad’s equipment played a vital role in our successful discovery of the wreck, and I believe both Solstad and I were equally thrilled by this achievement,” he concludes with a smile.