Headline ship casulties

Another insightful article from Lloyd's List Michael Grey...

Glut of disasters shows technology cannot erase risk
Viewpoint Michael Grey, 23 April 2007 Lloyds List

THE sea, it seems, never loses its capacity to spring a surprise upon those who live by it, a fact that is given a certain amount of additional pungency by a cheering reminder by that celebrated US lawyer Dennis Bryant.

Yesterday, he says, when I was sitting in the garden thinking vaguely about this column, was the anniversary of the loss of the Titanic.

But 2007 shows every inclination of being a bad one for maritime casualties. Just over a quarter of the year has elapsed and already we have lost a very big containership, rolled over a 38,000 tonne ro-ro, consigned a fairly modern passenger ship to the depths, and seen a supply boat carrying out a routine anchor handling operation capsize in tragic circumstances.

And there have been plenty more besides, although these are what might be described as the “headline” losses.

It has thus far been an even spread between shipping sectors, making a change from a fierce focus on tankers, which always attract the headlines, or bulker casualties, which lend themselves to easy categorisation.

It is perhaps the element of surprise which leaps out of all these losses. Everyone knows that containerships have been hugely increased in size since the robust and long-living first generation vessels, but everyone was hugely taken aback by the near loss of the MSC Napoli, which appears to have opened up under the engineroom like a tin can, and bent like the proverbial banana.

If there ever was a category of ship design that was considered to be largely trouble-free (other than from exploding boxes), it was containerships. And how does one manage to roll over the very large ro-ro Repubblica di Genova —state of the art when she was built —lying safely alongside a dock in Antwerp?

It took everyone by surprise, to put it mildly, although it was a huge relief that the crew managed to scramble safely ashore and no dockers were involved.

There was perhaps less of a mystery about the Sea Diamond, which tragically seems to have drowned two passengers after she ran onto the rocks at Santorini. Bodged navigation seems to have been the cause of the grounding, but the real surprise was the speed of the sinking, in a ship that was supposed to be sub-divided like a honeycomb, with watertight doors a-plenty.

But maybe nobody shut them. If they were so taken by surprise at the eventual sinking, perhaps they were indeed a trifle leisurely about the evacuation of the 1,600 people aboard.

Where is the “state of the art” damage control that passengership operators like to tell us is available to them?

Similarly, the tragedy of the Bourbon Dolphin, carrying out the very function that she was designed for, illustrates the way in which the totally unexpected might intervene. Seasoned anchor handler skippers professed their disbelief at the way in which the craft appeared to be broached, at a time when she was supposed to be running moorings from a newly arrived rig.

Only the unexpected nature of these calamities can be described as a “common factor” and indeed we could hardly anticipate one.

But the sea always surprises, and a body floating with an inch under its keel is intrinsically more hazardous than one sitting on dry land. It’s physics and there’s no arguing with it.

Do we focus sufficiently on the real surprises which the sea may throw at us in our risk management strategies?

Who in their right mind would have thought that a raging fire might, within a few minutes, be racing along the outside appurtenances of a giant cruiseship fitted with every conceivable type of firefighting equipment?

You can’t blame the designers for not anticipating such a conflagration, any more than you could criticise the ship’s crew for not practising regular abseiling down the ship with fire extinguishers, lest the passengers’ bath towels ignite.

But there again, those fussy old US naval architects, who designed the great liner United States with the butcher’s block as the only flammable item in her entire specification (other than the passengers themselves) might well have been a step ahead of their successors in their consideration of risk.

Dealing with the completely unexpected has always been part and parcel of the seafarer’s skill. I still remember many of the helpful pieces of advice I was given by my seniors, who doubtless had the same passed on to them by hoary old folk from the days of sail. It’s a sort of generation game.

“The officer of the watch on that ship,” pointed out a master slightly concerned at my passing distances as a freshly qualified junior third officer, “is probably incapacitated by drink, suffering from extreme myopia and too short to see out of the bridge windows — you need to give him more room!”

You tend to remember such advice. I certainly remembered it in the Gibraltar Straits a few years later when our steering gear broke down in a most alarming fashion, but our passing distance off a passing ship was such that we were not in actual danger.

“If a disaster can happen — it inevitably will” is a saying that is redolent with truth. But what if the possibility of such an accident occurring has not even entered anyone’s mind, or been identified as even a remote risk?

Just the other day I was on quite the biggest containership I had ever set foot aboard. It was an almost new 8,600 teu monster, which appeared to be built of steel the thickness of which would not look out of place on an armour-plated battleship.

The sheerstrake of the ship, for about the middle third of the ship’s length, was of plate nearly three inches thick, as was the deck plating adjacent to the ship’s side. In fact there was a noticable “step” down from this massive deck plate on the only place where you could walk across the ship’s colossal width, just abaft the superstructure, where stores could be handled.

Seeing this giant alongside I just could not possibly comprehend how such a seemingly impregnable ship could ever surprise those manning her, but there are ships this size which have lost overboard entire seven-high deck stacks of containers, and terrified their crews with the spectacular effects of parametric rolling. Nobody, no matter how strong and huge their ship, can ever take the sea for granted.

And with ships of this size, there is very little that a crew can do to intervene if things get out of hand. You think of all sorts of heroic acts in history, when beleagured seafarers fashioned jury rigs, constructed replacement rudders with a derrick, a few hatchboards and a couple of cargo winches, or “fished’ a serious leak under the waterline with a couple of tarpaulins and some strong cable.

What on earth would this tiny crew of about 23 souls do if this giant became uncontrollable, or a 40 footer buried in a stack suddenly burst into flames? How does a modern ship’s crew confront the unexpected? Or are you condemned to screaming for a helicopter and hoping that there is a capable salvor in the vicinity?

The amazing thing is that there are still such amazing acts of heroic seamanship and courage, when the chips are down. People seem still able, despite the unpromising characteristics of these massive modern ships, to handle them like tugboats, do extraordinary things with boats and rafts to fish out people from the water, or drag folk from certain death.

We should publicise these feats of seamanship far more than we do, and while the Marine Society and AMVER and the Fishermen and Mariners Royal Benevolent Society, the Nautical Institute and Lloyd’s List recognise these deeds, they don’t get out much into the general media.

Let us hope that the IMO Secretary-General’s initiative in offering an IMO Award for bravery at sea bears more fruit and gains some much needed recognition.

Just the other day I was reading an account of a remarkable act of courage and seamanship in the early days of last century with a master and crew saving their ship and bringing her safe into port, when others might have abandoned the fight.

There were articles in the papers, the master was awarded a handsome honorarium by Lloyd’s (they seem to have given such things up these days) and a piece of plate by the Board of Trade, while he and his crew, who came from a northern port city, were voted a civic dinner.

They were perhaps tougher, more stoic folk in those days, the ships were smaller and of course there was enough of them aboard to make a difference if the unexpected really did happen. They were also understood and appreciated by the public, which was not so remote from the seas and ships as it is today.

The trouble with these contemporary tales of the unexpected is that they seem as likely to happen in 2007 as they did a century previously. We understand the principles of risk management, we are busily getting to grips with “human factors” and we have an enormous amount of applied science on our side, where our predecessors had only seamanship.

We have regulations coming out of our ears, ships rendered practically unstable by the weight of printed advice. But it is impossible to forget that equilateral “risk triangle” and the segment of serious accidents that is represented by its apex.

Because in that small but significant section of this useful diagram are to be found passenger ships with 5,000 souls embarked, 10,000 teu containerships, 60,000 gt ferries and the more spectacular ships of our maritime present.

It would be a very foolish person who suggested that despite all the regulations and precautions, the simply frightful consequences of the unexpected would never happen. The first quarter of this year should surely tell us otherwise.