Search Continues for HMTS Sukhothai's Lost Sailors

Royal Thai Navy personnel transfer an injured officer on a gurney to local EMS
The crew of the HTMS Kraburi transfer an injured officer from the lost corvette to shoreside medical responders (Royal Thai Navy)

Published Dec 19, 2022 10:52 PM by The Maritime Executive

The Royal Thai Navy is continuing to search for survivors from the lost corvette HMTS Sukhothai, which sank in the Gulf of Thailand in a storm on Sunday. 

About 30 sailors from Sukhothai are still missing, according to the service, and surface vessels and aircraft have been deployed to look for any survivors. No confirmed deaths have yet been reported. 

Any consideration of salvage efforts will have to wait until after the search is completed, according to the Royal Thai Navy. The sunken vessel sits in about 120 feet of water, within reach for commercial divers and conventional salvage methods. 

According to an official statement from the service, the Sukhothai encountered strong winds and waves while operating in the Gulf of Thailand, about 20 miles off Bang Saphan. As the vessel rolled in the waves, seawater entered a side exhaust pipe, affecting her engines and electrical equipment and causing a blackout. More water entered the vessel, causing her to list further over. Her pumps were unable to control the flooding, and a responding vessel could not transfer over salvage pumps because the surface conditions were too rough. At 0012 hours on Sunday, the vessel capsized and sank. 

The sinking of the Sukhothai is the first peactime loss of a warship that the Royal Thai Navy has suffered in recent memory, according to military analysis site ThaiArmedForces. The loss eliminates one fifth of the service's surface combatant fleet; it also has raised questions about the budgeting priorities of the Royal Thai Navy, which has been focused in recent years on the acquisition of a single Chinese-built S26T Yuan-class submarine.

The service reached an agreement to buy the sub for $375 million in 2017, but the project has been delayed by the Chinese shipbuilder's inability to source an MTU-made diesel engine from Germany, as specified by the contract. A long-running EU embargo on weapons exports to China prevents the sale, according to The Diplomat. 

Thailand has threatened to cancel the order because of the lack of main propulsion, and it has already downsized the purchase from three subs to one in order to save costs. However, talks are under way on substituting a Chinese-built engine and carrying on with the acquisition, which would be the Royal Thai Navy's first-ever submarine.  

On Monday, Representative Phicharn Chaowpattanawong of Thailand's Future Forward Party raised questions about how the armed forces had balanced the submarine program and other priorities with the budget for maintenance, according to The Standard. In addition to the sub funding, he questioned whether maintenance funds may have been reduced or deferred in order to pay for amphibious vehicles in the 2020-21 fiscal year.