An Incisive Analysis of Ship Collisions

^ MV Dona Paz berthed at Tacloban in 1984 – Image Courtesy of lindsaybridge at http://www.flickr.com/photos/intervene/3208074196/sizes/l/ – Retrieved From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Do%C3%B1a_Paz_at_Tacloban.jpg

The Tragedy of the MV Dona Paz

December 20, 1987 was an unfortunate day for many onboard the ill fated MV Dona Paz. For, the vessel was the scene of the worst ever peacetime maritime disaster that killed an estimated 4,386 people. Nearly three decades later, the notorious record remains unbroken.

Yes, you read it right. The sinking of the RMS Titanic is not the worst non-military maritime catastrophe, it is the most famous. The Dona Paz collision killed thrice as much as did the Titanic tragedy.

Although designed to carry 1,518 passengers and 66 crew members, the Dona Paz was carrying more than twice this number. The upcoming Christmas season had pushed up the demand for ferries. The few who survived recount how the weather was calm but the sea was not.

Most passengers were fast asleep on the night of December 20 when the vessel collided into the MT Vector, a tanker carrying 8,800 barrels of gasoline. It was only a matter of time before a fire broke out.

Quickly, the fire spread from the Vector to the Dona Paz and thence to the waters of the congested Tablas Strait. The largely untrained crew felt no qualms in abandoning the passengers to their fate.

The Capsized RMS Queen Elizabeth Image Courtesy of Barry Loigman, M.D. Retrieved From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Seawise_University_wreck.jpg

The Capsized RMS Queen Elizabeth
Image Courtesy of Barry Loigman, M.D.
Retrieved From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Seawise_University_wreck.jpg

To make matters worse, life jackets were locked. In a last ditch attempt at survival, passengers jumped into the shark-infested waters that were already up in flames. No wonder, the casualties were so high.

Till date, the causes for the collision remain unknown. Many believe, most crew members were busy drinking and watching T.V. and it was only an unseasoned apprentice who was guiding the ship through this congested channel.

Maritime Mishaps

Maritime accidents can cause human deaths, environmental damage, and loss of property. They can also inflict grave damage on maritime infrastructure thereby delaying and derailing maritime trade. Please note, maritime trade makes up 90% of the total global trade.

Maritime accidents that involve one or more ships include:

  • Sinking or Foundering: is of course the phenomenon when the ship goes below water
  • Collision: results when two moving ships strike into one another
  • Allision: is the striking of two ships, one mobile and one stationary
  • Grounding: is the impact of a ship with a seabed or a waterway
  • Fires and Explosions
  • Capsizing or Keeling Over: is when a ship turns upside down or turns to its side. You have to right a capsized vessel if you wish to use it again

According to the report Safety and Shipping Review 2015 by Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty, foundering has been the chief cause of ship loss over the past decade. The year 2014 was no different. Grounding followed foundering in 2014.

Tanker accidents are particularly devastating for the environment because the oil or chemicals that they carry can spread far and wide. The Exxon Valdez Spill of 1989 released an estimated 11-38million US gallons of oil causing one of the worst environmental disasters.

Exxon Valdez in Oily Waters after the Grounding Incident Image Courtesy of http://response.restoration.noaa.gov/photos/exxon/02.html Retrieved From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Exval.jpeg

Exxon Valdez in Oily Waters after the Grounding Incident
Image Courtesy of http://response.restoration.noaa.gov/photos/exxon/02.html
Retrieved From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Exval.jpeg

 

Collisions between two oil tankers are rare. The world witnessed one such collision in 1979 when the Atlantic Empress and the Aegean Captain collided in the Caribbean Sea killing 26 and spilling 280,000 tons of crude oil.

In September 2014, the 8,749TEU MV Colombo Express collided with the 8,122TEU MV Maersk Tanjong near Port Said in the Suez Canal, a critical passageway for the global maritime traffic. The incident delayed traffic for quite some time.

What Causes Collisions?

Despite great advances in technology, the maritime accident rate continues to be high. And although human error is widely believed to be the number one causative, there is more to it than meets the eye.

A Grounded Costa Concordia Image Courtesy of Soerfm Retrieved From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Costa_Concordia_salvage_July_crop.jpg

A Grounded Costa Concordia
Image Courtesy of Soerfm
Retrieved From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Costa_Concordia_salvage_July_crop.jpg

According to the study Human Error and Marine Safety by Dr. Anita M. Rothblum of the U.S. Coast Guard Research & Development Center, human errors cause:

  • 89-96% collisions
  • 75-96% maritime casualties
  • 75% allisions
  • 75% fires and explosions
  • 84-88% tanker accidents
  • 79% towing vessel groundings

Many collisions are a result of the watch officers of either or both the vessels being unaware of the presence of the other vessel until it is too late. But that is not all.

Often, it is the mismatch between the human element and other elements of the marine system that causes the catastrophe. Any marine system includes:

  • Humans: pilots, crew, dock workers, vessel traffic service operators etc.
  • Technology: the hardware and software
  • Environment: condition of the sea, the regulatory climate, economic situation, weather, temperature, lighting, noise and vibrations
  • Organization: work culture, crew training and size, work schedules, hierarchical framework, and work safety norms

Players in the maritime world widely whisper that technology suppliers provide what is possible and marketable rather than what is needed. This often makes hi-tech gadgets difficult to operate. In emergencies, this can cause or aggravate a disaster. Investigators however blame the operator.

Wreckage of the RMS Titanic Image Courtesy of NOAA at http://www.gc.noaa.gov/gcil_titanic.html Retrieved From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Titanic_wreck_bow.jpg

Wreckage of the RMS Titanic
Image Courtesy of NOAA at http://www.gc.noaa.gov/gcil_titanic.html
Retrieved From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Titanic_wreck_bow.jpg

And there is another pitfall with technology, it can make us complacent. All technologies have limitations, howsoever miniscule. But once a technology proves its worth and establishes itself, operators tend to over-rely on it and drop down their guard. Here, the error is primarily human.

In January 2014, the Rickmers Dubai rammed into the Walcon Wizard in the Dover Strait simply because the watch officer of the Rickmers Dubai relied only on technological aids to navigation. Well, the binoculars are a humble but effective tool in many situations.

Thus far, trainers have not taken cognizance of the fatal perils inherent in such over-dependence. As a result, young personnel are naively accepting technology. And this is a generation that has grown up looking at electronic screens and believing everything they see on it.

Ship operators are not immune from the pressurizing effect of economic slowdowns. This pressure often forces many to make risky decisions because it concerns our livelihoods. Ship operators are no exception. Once again, it is the human who is blamed.

Then again, there are the organizational factors. Poor work cultures may leave the employee unmotivated while deliberate cost-cutting measures such as understaffing and extending duty hours leave the personnel fatigued.

Bad Work Cultures Frustrate Employees Image Courtesy of Aleutie at Shutterstock

Bad Work Cultures Frustrate Employees
Image Courtesy of Aleutie at Shutterstock

Reduced manning levels have also lowered the ability of seasoned personnel to pass on valuable knowledge to the next generation. Learning on-the-deck now looks like a relic of the bygone era.

In a welcome development, an amendment to the International Safety Management (ISM) Code that materialized from January 1, 2015, requires owners to provide more onboard personnel than the Minimum Safe Manning Document prescribes. Defaulting owners face prosecution.

Talking of fatigue, the U.S. Coast Guard has blamed the following factors for intensifying human errors:

  • Fatigue
  • Technological Unawareness
  • Deficient Communication and Coordination
Fatigue can be Fatal in the Shipping World Image Courtesy of Photographee.eu at Shutterstock

Fatigue can be Fatal in the Shipping World
Image Courtesy of Photographee.eu at Shutterstock

This brings us back to our earlier observation i.e. you cannot treat human errors in isolation but need put them in the correct technological, organizational, and environmental context.

Now, causes specifically responsible for collision include:

  • Bad Decisions
  • Poor Lookout
  • Insufficient Manning
  • Faulty Use of Radar
  • Neglecting Rules
  • Inexperience
  • Flawed Inter-Personal Communication
  • Fatigue
  • Over-Working
  • Inadequate Training
  • Unfamiliarity with Equipment
  • Radio Failure

You can easily group all these causes under the three broad heads of fatigue, lack of familiarity with technology, and insufficient communication. And we have already noted the role of technology, organization, and environment in escalating these three heads.

One area where human error is unforgiveable is ignorance of the relevant regulations. But here again, the importance of work practices comes into play. Proper organizational work practices can overcome ignorance.

The International Maritime Organization’s (IMO’s) Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGs) 1972 forms the backbone of the regulations that seek to minimize the number of ship collisions.

Among other things, COLREGs recognized the Traffic Separation Scheme i.e. a scheme to lower the risk of collision in congested and/or converging ship traffic areas by separating traffic that is moving in opposite or almost opposite directions.

All deck officers have to be thorough with COLREGs. Yet, many officers maneuver the ship in contrast COLREGs’ prescribes. This is because officers are:

  • Ignorant about COLREGs
  • Unwilling to Slow Down or Deviate
  • Constrained by Circumstances such as traffic, topographical perils etc.
  • Trying to Avoid Collision
  • Delaying Course Alteration
  • Inexperienced
  • Surprised by Other Vessel’s Incorrect Action
  • Not Focused

Other Issues

Apart from collisions and maritime accidents, some of the other, related issues that confront shipping are:

  • Slow Steaming
  • Rising Ship Sizes

Slow Steaming is the deliberate slow sailing of ships in order to lower fuel use. While it cuts fuel costs, the practice slashes the ability of a ship to maneuver itself out of bad weather and impending pirate attacks.

Moreover, old ships designed for higher speeds do not benefit sizably from slowing down to 18knots. Container ships started this practice that has now gained (blind?) acceptance with all vessel types.

Rising Ship Sizes are a result of the fact that larger ships carry more cargo for the same amount of fuel burnt as compared to smaller vessels. Designers and builders are opting for larger and larger ships. The size of container ships has jumped by a whopping 80% over the past decade.

The MV CSCL Globe is the World’s Largest Container Ship at Present Image Courtesy of Keith Skipper at Flickr: DSCF0005.jpg Retrieved From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:CSCL_Globe_arriving_at_Felixstowe,_United_Kingdom.jpg

The MV CSCL Globe is the World’s Largest Container Ship at Present
Image Courtesy of Keith Skipper at Flickr: DSCF0005.jpg
Retrieved From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:CSCL_Globe_arriving_at_Felixstowe,_United_Kingdom.jpg

Currently, the CSCL Globe is the largest container ship in the world with a 19,100TEU capacity. Come 2017 and Mitsui O.S.K. Lines’ (MOL) 20,150TEU vessels will displace it from the top spot.

The phenomenon creates its own set of challenges. An accident involving a mega ship can claim more lives, cause greater financial damage, create more difficulties during salvage, and jam maritime traffic for longer durations. And if this mega ship is a loaded tanker, God help us all!

A ballpark estimate by Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty in its report Safety and Shipping Review 2015, places the total losses of the capsizing of a 19,000TEU container ship at over $1billion. And if two such ships collide, the losses will exceed $2billion.

 

The Role of Ship Watch Officer will Continue to be Critical Image Courtesy of Oleksandr Kalinichenko at Shutterstock

The Role of Ship Watch Officer will Continue to be Critical
Image Courtesy of Oleksandr Kalinichenko at Shutterstock

Finally

These days, there is a new distraction for watch officers and pilots – the innocuous looking mobile phone. And we all know how addictive this little device can be.

Technology without human touch is useless and so are work practices that ignore the interests of the crew. While humans cannot escape blame completely, holding them totally responsible for collisions is a mistake. The truth is always in somewhere in between, in the shades of gray.

Watch keeping and piloting will continue to be important despite technological developments. You cannot totally replace human intelligence and discretion. Work cultures and technologies have to adapt to humans if they want to better the current scenario.

Interested to know more on maritime accidents, their causes, and their remedies? Visit our blog. For the very best in marine fabrication services, marine pipe fitting, and large scale custom metal fabrication, contact Kemplon Engineering.