Nov 142008

One day MAC will get around to hot-keying “inadequate master-pilot exchange” on his keyboard, it would be an enormously time-saving effort as the grounding of the 2,452 tonne passenger ship Van Gogh in Devonport, Tasmania, in February this year with 414 passengers and 226 crew, shows.
The way to Gogh?

Poor communications between an English-speaking pilot and a Russian crew, inadequate master-pilot exchange, inadequate monitoring of the pilot and distracting confusion about what the pilot thought the bridge team was doing, all contributed to a close call with a berthed bulk carrier and a thankfully soft grounding as the Van Gogh departed Devonport on 23rd February, 2008.

According to the newly released ATSB report, it went thusly:

Van Gogh, operated by Club Cruise Entertainment, is equipped with twin controllable pitch propellers either side of a single rudder on her centreline. This configuration gives her poor steering characteristics at slow speeds. The ship’s minimum steerage speed was not given on the pilot card and the master did not volunteer the information because the ship had been conned by the same pilot the previous year the master assumed he was already aware of the problem.

Assumptions are dangerous beasties best kept under lock and key.

Because of the low-speed steerage problem, in beam wind conditions it was normal practice for hard-over helm orders to be augmented by ‘splitting’ the ship’s engines to help the ship turn. The pilot was not aware of this practice.

A passage plan was agreed during the pre-departure briefing and the pilot gave the master a chart section displaying his intentions. The pilot, however, did not follow the agreed passage plan and the master did not challenge him. True, given the circumstances and focussed bustle of departure making such a challenge might not occur to anyone and might not seem timely. As a general rule, however, any unannounced departure from the passage plan should be questioned.

So it was that when the pilot took the con, the vessel was not in the planned position and had poor steerage due to her low speed, exacerbated by the outfow of water from the Mersey river due to recent rains. That set her towards Goliath.

It appeared to the pilot, from glances at the engine telegraph settings that someone was countermanding his orders. Nobody was but he didn’t know in part because the bridge conversation was largely in Russian and because, possible due to the speed of events, he didn’t ask. It added a layer of potentially distracting confusion at a critical moment.

During such periods it’s important that everyone on the bridge talks the same language to stay on the same page.

Although the pilot managed to gain speed and therefore steerage, the vessel grounded shortly afterwards but was easily refloated.

The official ATSB report can be downloaded here.

As part of its response to the incident, Club Cruise Entertainment is including the DVD training videos “Stranger On The Bridge” on its ships. You can find more about the video here.

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