Accidents are often a team effort in which if one part of the team is on the ball the accident does not happen. So it was with the collision between the UK containership Ever Smart and the Marshall Islands registered oil tanker Alexandra 1 at Jebel Ali.
Says the report from the UK's Marine Accident Investigation Branch. MAIB: "The collision resulted from several factors. In particular, a passing arrangement was not agreed or promulgated and the actions of both masters were based on assumptions.
"Alexandra 1 was unnecessarily close to the channel entrance and the tanker’s master acted on scanty VHF radio information. In addition, Ever Smart’s bridge team did not keep a proper lookout or monitor the tanker’s movement. They only realised that Alexandra 1 was close ahead seconds before the collision when alerted by the port control.
"The accident occurred within Jebel Ali’s port limits. The precautions of pilotage and the port’s vessel traffic service, which would normally co-ordinate and de-conflict the movements of vessels in the port area, were ineffective on this occasion."
The reliance of Alexandra 1’s master on scanty VHF information and the failure of Ever Smart’s master to keep a proper lookout and monitor Alexandra 1’s movement were pivotal to this accident. However, it is also evident that a lack of an agreed plan and effective communication, co-ordination and monitoring were significant factors, which contributed to the flaws in Ever Smart’s and Alexandra 1’s masters’ situational awareness.
In busy port areas, the clarity and accuracy of VHF traffic is essential. However, the lack of discipline on VHF radio is a common problem in some regions. Constant ‘chatter’ resulting in exchanges being over-spoken is a regular occurrence. Consequently, the possibility of missing transmissions or parts of transmissions is increased.
In this case, the port's working channel, VHF channel 69, was very busy and Alexandra 1’s master did not hear the full exchange between port control and the tug Zakheer Bravo. As a result, although the master correctly assumed that the ‘tanker’ referred to in the exchange was Alexandra 1, he clearly did not know the name of the vessel the VTSO was talking to. In such circumstances, it would have been appropriate for the master to clarify the situation with either port control or Ever Smart rather than taking action on the basis of incomplete information.
VTSO VHF exchanges with Alexandra 1 and Ever Smart immediately before the collision indicate that he did not know how to communicate effectively in an emergency. The lack of urgency and clarity of the exchanges possibly reflected the VTSO’s lack of appreciation of the situation. However, it also possibly reflected his lack of formal training in VTS and a lack of experience of emergency drills.
The interval between the VTSO’s call to Ever Smart and the collision was only 31 seconds. Therefore, it is impossible to determine whether the use of a message marker such as ‘Warning’ would have prompted quicker action by Ever Smart’s bridge team. However, the circumstances of this accident underline the importance and benefits of V103 training elements such as the use of message markers, which potentially could prevent accidents in the future.
Although the pilot had monitored Alexandra 1 on the port radar display it seems likely that he did not appreciate the tanker’s movement, how close the tanker was to the channel entrance, or how close the vessels would pass. By 2334, when the pilot was preparing to leave Ever Smart’s bridge, Alexandra 1 had closed to within 0.7nm of the No1 buoys and was starting to encroach on the channel entrance. Even assuming that Alexandra 1 had remained stationary, the passing distance between the vessels would have been less than the 1.5 cables estimated by the container ship’s master. This was unnecessarily close, but the risk of collision was not foreseen by the pilot.The pilot’s failure to co-ordinate and communicate the passing arrangements for Ever Smart and Alexandra 1 were significant omissions. Although both masters were aware of the other vessel, the plan for the passing of the container ship and the tanker was always ambiguous. The pilot had given Ever Smart’s master clear instructions of what to do following his disembarkation and he and the container ship’s master showed a common understanding of the situation. However, Alexandra 1’s master was not told where to wait or the intended movement of Ever Smart on leaving the channel.
As the outbound vessel, Ever Smart had ‘right of way’ over the inbound Alexandra 1. In such circumstances, the port’s operational procedures required pilots to ‘take early and positive action and make their intentions clear’. In this case, the pilot did not do so.
Before leaving Ever Smart, it would have been appropriate for the pilot to have at least informed Alexandra 1’s master that Ever Smart would be maintaining its heading on leaving the channel. This would have clarified the situation and reduced the possibility of Alexandra 1’s master misinterpreting the exchange between Jebel Ali port control and Zakheer Bravo on the busy VHF radio. Informing the port control of the intention to transfer between vessels and the intended passing arrangement would also have contributed to the VTSO’s situational awareness.
It took four participants to make the accident happen, it might have taken only one to stop it. And incident full of lessons.