Cyclone Nilam has shown its strength even before it crossed the coast, sending an oil tanker in the Bay of Bengal drifting towards the Besant Nagar beach on Wednesday afternoon.
A lifeboat carrying 14 people from the ship capsized in the choppy waters, and fishermen rescued and brought to shore six of them. Eight others were still on the boat at 4.30pm.
Tamil Nadu is on high alert as Cyclone Nilam is roaring towards its coast with winds as strong as that of Superstorm Sandy that shattered the east coast of the US on Tuesday. Weathermen said wind speeds could reach 110kmph when the cyclone is expected to cross the coast late in a few hours.
When the last reports came in around 4pm, the cyclone was located 80km south east of Cuddalore.
The regional meteorological office in Chennai forecast storm surges up to 1.5 metres that could inundate low-lying areas of Chennai and the neighbouring districts of Kancheepuram and Tiruvallur.
"The cyclone could bring heavy rains of up to 25cm in the next 24 hours," a Met official said.
Many people remained indoors through the day marked by intermittent spells of rain. However, the Besant Nagar beach attracted a large number of people who jostled to catch a glimpse of Pratibha Cauvery, the ship that started drifting towards the beach.
A port official said,
"There are 37 people onboard Pratibha Cauvery. It ran aground today (Wednesday) around noon. It has no cargo and weighs 28,741 DWT (deadweight tonnage)."
The official said the Indian Coast Guard has been informed and it is for the ship owners to decide on the next course of action. He said the ship was proceeding to Mumbai after discharging its cargo at Chennai Port. The ship returned as it was called back by the Chennai Port Oct 8, the official said, not wanting to be named. He said the ship's engine was not powerful enough to counter the strong winds and it started drifting towards the shore.According to him, the possibility of the ship sailing back depends on the extent of the damage the vessel has suffered. According to Chennai Port officials, all the ships at the harbour were asked to go into the sea as a safety measure. Meanwhile, onlookers at the beach experienced a sort of sand blasting with specks of sand hitting the exposed parts of their bodies at great force as gusts of wind picked up, making them run for cover.
"We came here to see the fury of the sea waves. The bonus is this ship that has run aground," an excited onlooker said.