In the summer of last year, two loaded bulk carriers collided off Andros – one of the vessels suffered flooding of a cargo hold – good business for Greek salvors and Greek shipyards. In October 2013, a large vessel struck the side of an oil tanker that caused major hull damage. In January 2014, two vessels collided off Singapore resulting in multi-million dollar claims. In recent weeks, two bulk carriers ran aground on the islands of Oinousses and Astypalaia respectively- LOF signed in both cases. None of these casualties resulted from a failure of the engine, steering gear or navigational equipment – they were all the result of ‘human failure’. A recent article in TradeWinds was headed: “A hundred things that should not have happened in the last year”. Ince & Co were involved with about 45 of these incidents. I think that if I was to analyse all 100, I would struggle to find many that had resulted from a breakdown of equipment. The cause is more likely to have been a breakdown of bridge team management. Too many heads in radars, too much paperwork at the chart table and not enough use of the navigator’s most valuable asset – his eyes.
Unfortunately, many young officers today don’t have a full, proper and practical understanding of the Collision Regulations. Why is that? I think we have to turn to the Maritime Training Colleges for part of the answer. A Master needs young officers who can not only prepare fantastic spreadsheets on their laptops and i-pads but officers on the bridge who can correctly and consistently apply the Colregs. And, perhaps controversially, he also needs an owner to put more people on his ship.
During a casualty investigation, we need to get the evidence quickly before anyone else. We need to test the crew evidence against other records – both traditional and modern – and we need to get the story straight. And crucially, we need to control the flow of information. In the good old days, we had the crew, charts and logbooks – hopefully all filled in correctly, a course recorder and a printout from the telegraph logger if we were lucky. Now there is more sophisticated equipment on the modern bridge including the Voyage Data Recorder (VDR) or the so-called ”black box”, ECDIS and occasionally GPS printouts. It is sometimes not necessary to speak to the witness – I have the data in my back pocket and I just need to know what was going through the witness’ head. There are also “spies” ashore – AIS stations, VTS and CCTV.
So how can this technology help? Consider two accident investigations in the Parana River last year. Before travelling to the casualty sites, I obtained AIS movie-clips showing how two vessels had collided and in the other incident how a vessel had grounded [PPT AIS screenshots]. Without this electronic data, the investigations are likely to have taken several more days.
However, technology can also harm your case. For example, a container ship struck a large oil tanker at full speed in the Gulf of Aden. This was the first collision case in the English High Court where the VDR data, crucially the bridge conversations, was the ‘evidence in chief’. Unfortunately, cargo interests who had paid money out in salvage wanted their money back and used this data to their advantage. They argued that ”Mr Smith was incompetent to act as Second Officer and/or Officer of Watch on the vessel in that he didn’t know, and/or was unable to tell, port from starboard” They also said ”As can be heard from the vessel’s VDR, the Second Officer was listening to pop music on the bridge at all material times prior to the collision”. In 2008, there was a casualty off Gibraltar that resulted in a total loss. The vessel dragged anchor in atrocious weather, grounded on Europa Point and broke in two. Eventually, all crew were safely rescued. A tug had been trying for many hours to get a line on the vessel as she approached the cliffs. The vessel’s Captain was screaming at the tug boat “we are all going to die”. In a calm voice, the tug skipper reassured the Captain that everything would be OK. There was a pause and then the VDR captured the Captain’s response: ”OK. I will not worry. But if I escape, I will come and I kill you!”
Above article is an edited version of Stuart Francis presentation during 2014 SAFETY4SEA Forum
More details may be found by viewing his Presentation video