Foundered cargo ships Hera, Vanessa, Rezzak and Tolstoy share common characteristics. All were around 30 or more years old, carrying similar cargoes, two are known to have had low freeboard, all sank in the Black Sea/Sea of Azov, all departed in questionable weather, all were very serious casualties, and with one exception, official investigation reports have yet to be published or filed with the IMO.
The exception is M/V Tolstoy, the report of which was filed with the IMO by then chief investigator Captain Hristo Papukchiev shortly before his resignation from the team tasked with investigating the loss of Vanessa.
In a presentation to the Maritime Accident Investigators International Forum held in Budapest a month before his resignation, Papukchiev identified failures in port state control communications and inaction as contributing to the loss of M/V Tolstoy.
Put simply, port state controls that could have prevented the loss of Tolstoy failed to protect the seafarers, their ship or the environment. It calls into question the commitment of port state memoranda of agreement, MOUs, in the region to safety and their ability to collaborate.
No-one Noticed the Red Flag
Tolstoy was 37 years old when her hull snapped in a storm in the Sea of Azov in the morning of 27 September 2008 with the loss of eight of her 10 crew. She should,in fact, have been under arrest.
Built in Soviet-era Romania at the Santierul Navale Oltenita shipyard, Tolstoy was launched in 1971 as Volgo-Don 5028. She was a River-Sea Type, Project 1565, class О vessel. Papukchiev explains: “What that means is that a vessel of this class might be operated in river-sea water spaces with a height of wave up to 2.0 m.”
At the time of the loss Tolstoy was owned by Pegasus Shipping, a Delaware registered company with head offices in the Seychelles and operated by Regina Shipping of Kiev.
For a period until a year before her loss, Tolstoy was flagged under the DPRK, North Korea. On 26 October 2007 the North Korean marine administration sent a note to all members of the Paris, Black Sea, Mediterranean and Indian MOUs informing them that because of discrepancies with standards and other serous omissions, resulting in multiple detentions of the vessel and issues related to the requirements of the DPRK Ship Register, M/V Tolstoy had been excluded from the register.
Indeed, the Equasis database shows a long list of detentions for Tolstoy.
In the same note the DPRK has asked for assistance in seizing the ship documents of Tolstoy. Some 10 days later, the note was sent by the Secretary of the Black Sea Memorandum of Port State Control to administrations of the states of the Black Sea Region for immediate execution.
Despite the notes from the DPRK and the secretary of the Black Sea MOU Tolstoy continued to ply between ports around the Black Sea and Sea of Azov without hindrance.
According to the Equasis database Tolstoy was detained at the Port of Rostov on Don, Russia for nine days in mid-March 2009. Significantly the reasons for detention were structural damage and deformations of longitudinal and transverse sets of her hull; irregularities regarding the operable condition of radio aids for communication in emergency situation, including GMDSS MF/HF, and the provision of navigational charts and manuals.
Port State Control inspectors in Rostov On Don were apparently unaware of the notes from either the DPRK or the Black Sea MOU and she was allowed to sail.
Despite no longer being registered, Tolstoy was still on the IMO database as operating under the North Korean flag.
From 6 November 2007 to her foundering on 27 September 2008 Tolstoy “…navigated, visited ports, conducted cargo handling in violation of the norms, rules and criteria established by International Maritime Organization and European Maritime Safety Agency,” says Papukchiev.
The DPRK and the Black Sea MOU had waved big red warning flags about Tolstoy but nobody took any notice.
Papukchiev wants to see procedures in place to update the IMO database when vessels are deleted from registries and for port state control inspectors to deprive a vessel of its relevant documents after a flag administration has issued a notice of deletion.
On 22 September 2008 M/V Tolstoy departed Rostov on Don Port for Nemrut, Turkey, a voyage she was not designed or built to carry out. She had 2,568 metric tonnes of metal scrap in her two holds.
Her two lifeboats were unusable and her gyrocompass didn’t work.
She passed out of the Kerch Channel on 22 September at 6 knots. By 1743 on 26 September she was encountering rain and heavy seas with 4 metre waves, twice her design capacity.
Battered by a NNE wind of Force 8 and sea state 5, having been flooded to an extent that stopped her engines at one point, Tolstoy made around 4.5 knots, deviating up to 25 degrees from her course of 245. Then, according to the VTS trace, at 0318 she suddenly deviated from 210 degrees to 171 degrees and her speed fell to 3.5 knots. Her steering had failed.
Over the next 4 minutes she came back around to 217 at 4.2 knots then her speed began to drop again to 2.6 knots. A little after 0335 the hull girder finally failed. At 0339 she vanished from the Varna VTS monitoring screens.
Two crew members who were on deck survived, made it to an automatically inflated liferaft and were rescue by the Belgian registered yacht Mirage.
No distress signals were transmitted during the emergency either by radio or pyrotechnics. It was not until a EPIRB signal was received about 25 minutes after the vessel foundered that it was realised ashore that there was an emergency. It took almost an hour to validate the signal.
In an interview with the Bulgarian magazine Klass, Papukchiev says: “The fact is there had been no signals of distress from m/v ”Tolstoy”. This should come as no surprise since the ship’s radio-technical equipment had been out of order. In accordance with the existing regulations, m/v ”Tolstoy” should have been watched closely as a potentially risky ship. She has been known for a year to be out of North Korean Maritime Administration’s register. The Bulgarian authorities also received a notification for the imminent deprivation of the ship’s documents and her sale rights. The arrival of this type of vessel into our territory and her behaviour, which was obvious from the surveillance systems, should have been a clear signal for the traffic operators that there was a serious problem. Instead of waiting for the ship to make contact, as it is by the books, they should have used their authority and attempt to reach her. They didn’t. The movement of the ship shows that she has experienced some difficulties that made her lose control at times and change course and speed, which should have rang the alarm bells for the officials on duty.”
The investigation into the loss of M/V Tolstoy indentified a number of severe shortfalls in Bulgaria’s SAR capability:
• Varna Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre didn’t possess a suitable premise, equipped for operation of a joint staff of experts and participants in search and rescue operations.
• The technical equipment available is not reliable, there is no software support for forecasting of assumed coordinates of people and objects in distress in the search and rescue controlled area.
• Varna Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre has limited user’s access to VT Explorer software product for observation of Black Sea in real time. The perimeter observed is less the boundaries of Bulgarian Search and Rescue Area of Responsibility.
• The experts and operators at Varna Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre have no authorized full access to International Maritime Organization data base of ships with the necessary data for identification of vessels in distress condition.
”The Commission has established that the aircraft, NF helicopters, have no technical ability to communicate with maritime rescue crafts during the coordinated search and rescue,” says the report.
Says Papukchiev in the Klass interview with Mihail Rangelov: “…the rescue teams could have arrived even before the ship had sunk. Still it is difficult to make any assumptions about what would have happened had the authorities reacted on time. Whenever a ship is in a distress, the efficiency of the help she receives depends on the conditions at the time. What is more worrying is the fact that the rescue efforts did not begin until 5-6 hours after the EPIRB signal had been received. But I can’t make any assessment whether the rescue efforts have been right or not” .
Papukchiev expected the final report on the Tolstoy to result in action, for recommendations to be actioned or at least discussed. Instead he found himself under increasing pressure to fall into line and training that was already agreed was denied. He was told ‘Go and Kiss the hand,Man…kiss the hand, and all will be OK’.
He tells MAC: “I was expecting some after thunder storm activities regarding presentation of the m/v “Tolstoy” twilight story. The investigation report was uploaded in due time to IMO GISIS, hard copies sent to IMO and EMSA head quarters and to all parties concerned as well. So far nothing but silence only.”
On 24 April Papukchiev says: “Exhausted by office combats with the renegades I had a walk on fresh air outside the Ministry of Transport nearby to National Theater park with the fountains. Fresh and cold Friday afternoon.”
He was troubled. Nearby was a placard, “20 years The Wall” as, from somewhere came the sounds of Pink Floyd’s ‘Brick In The Wall’.
“I have missed 20 years ago to take a part in the breaking the previous (Berlin) wall. For a six months in the office I become to mutate in to a brick of the same… “ he says. With his independence in danger of being compromised and little support he knew he had to resign that day: “Yesterday would have been too soon,tomorrow would be too late,” he recalls.
He returned to his office and drafted his letter of resignation. He was not going to become another brick in the wall.
Captain Papukchiev has returned to sea. Despite the checkered past he feels the exprience of being an investigator has given him new insight into his job as Master: “I have come to myself again across the lessons learned. The experience gained as leading maritime casualty investigator and this deja-vu as Master of the ship made me some startling discoveries . Now I am able to understand more about marine business, captain capacities and why certain problems kept cropping up, regarding the difficulties indirectly linked to certain events and their deepest roots in the marine society as well.”
Would he return to maritime investigation? Yes, provided there was a guarantee of independence.
Hristo Papukchiev’s situation was not unique. There are undertrained, under equipped investigators with compromised independence and subjected to political and commercial pressure in a great number of countries. Most remain silent and unsupported by the international community.
For maritime accident/safety investigation to make seafaring safer investigators must be independent yet that need for independence is not often understood in those administrations which need professional maritime accident investigation.
What makes Papukchiev’s story unusual is that he has gone public. Hopefully he won’t be the last.