She was built for the adventures of a lifetime in one of the most survival-challenging, and vanishing environments on the planet with a reputation for the world’s worst weather. This adventure was the end of a lifetime among the icebergs for the Little Red Ship.
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Thanks to Andy White for permission to use his photographs
MV Explorer, the Little Red Ship, now rests fifteen hundred metres below the frigid waters of the Antarctic. She was, after all, specially built for this chilly domain, designed by Lars Eric Lindblad, who knew intimately the extremes the vessel would face.
No lives were lost in part because of the courage of her engineers as they fought to keep her afloat after her hull was ripped open. In part because of the master’s timely order to abandon ship. In part because of the skill of the drivers of the inflatable Zodiac who tugged the open lifeboats to safety.
Mainly, because because of luck: the ship listed slowly, the weather was calm and several other ships were nearby to come quickly to the aid of the survivors.
We can never depend on luck being such a generous lady. That’s why I’m telling you this story.
Let’s take a look at the master.
At 49, the master had 25 years experience in ice navigation in the Baltic. He had been Chief Officer on Explorer for one previous tour and this was the first time that he had made command decisions as a master and he seems t have made them based on his experience in the Baltic.
As the Titanic tragedy showed, ice can tear a hole in a hull but the Explorer had been specially strengthened.
Ice gets more compact and harder as it gets older. The Explorer bridge team believed they were passing through first-year ice and much of it was but there was a lot of multi-year ice, much harder, mixed in with it. Some of those bergy bits and growlers as they’re called had ice rams of up to 15 metres hidden beneath the water.
Because the master thought they were passing through first year ice the risk seemed to be low and that may explain why he maintained the relatively high speed, for those conditions, of around five knots and did not navigate through clear areas of water.
To the master it looked like a familiar situation but it wasn’t.
To some of the passengers who had been on similar tours in these conditions Explorer was travelling surprisingly fast, so did an experienced ice pilot based on an examination of a passenger’s video shortly before the ship was holed.. The master disagrees.
That video also suggests how the Explorer was holed. At one point an ice floe is just under the bow with Explorer downwind. Instead of allowing the floe to clear to starboard the vessel moves to port and upwind and leans on the floe with some force. That could provide enough leverage and pressure for one of those large bergy bits of hard ice to pierce the flat side of the hull, perhaps one of those ice rams.
There is no direct evidence of how much damage was done to Explorer but it is believed she was punctured and torn from cabin 308 to at least cabin 314. It was far more than the ‘fist-sized hole’ widely reported. Fortunately, the water didn’t stay there – she might have capsized even earlier had it done so.
The water flooded down into the separator room and from there to the generator room and she lost power, disabling not only the pumps trying to move water out of the ship but also the davits for launchi8ng the inflatable Zodiac RIBs.
Today we do not know why the watertight door between the separator room and the generator room did no hold. It might have remained open after a crewmember checked the downflow of water into the separator room. The door may not have been closed properly later or the gasket did not seal properly.
A greater threat was created when water covered the sewerage tank in the separator. causing backflooding into the cabins above. From those cabins the water went through ducts into the generator room and from there through the open watertight door to the main engine room. The valve that could have stopped the flow could not be reached because it was in the flooded separator room.
That led to the progressive flooding that finally doomed the little red ship.
A resourceful engineering team did manage to restore power so that the Zodiac RIBs could be launched to assist the lifeboats. Without those, and the expertise of the drivers this might have been a very different, and possibly tragic story.
The potential for tragedy began the day the passengers boarded. They were excited. They had much to learn. They were meeting new people. They were exploring the ship.
There was a lifeboat safety briefing that day but by the time of the incident many passengers did not know which lifeboats they had been assigned to, not surprising since their attention was so divided. There should have been a refresher abandon ship drill a week after departure but it did not happen.
That led to delays in the launch of the lifeboats.
Some passengers were confused by the instruction to muster in the Penguin Lounge. For the past twelve days they’d known it as the lecture hall. In a time of crisis even minor confusion can add to the existing hazards and increases the chances of panic breaking out.
Passengers who were experienced seafarers and already familiar with cold shock and hypothermia knew that warm clothing is a must in these conditions but photographs and video of the mustered passengers show that many others did not wear appropriate clothing.
Someone entering water at these sea temperatures can die of cold shock within seconds or minutes and of hypothermia in less than an hour. It would be several hours before rescue arrived. Warm clothing is truly a matter of life and death.
Confusion continued at the muster station. At first there was little control over passenger movement and several went back to their cabins, unaccompanied and not recorded, to pack suitcases and were not checked back to ensure that they had safely returned. Other had to go to the lavatory, which was some distance from the muster station. It was a while before an escort system was set-up but even so, there was apparently no second roll-call to ensure that all passengers were present before evacuation.
As if to highlight the dangers involved, the main power went off while passengers were going to their cabins and there was no emergency lighting to help them see their way.
Once aboard the open lifeboats, things were still unsatisfactory. Athwartships rope hindered movement towards the bows. One passenger, a seasoned seafarer, abandoned his solid foam lifejacket for an inflatable lifejacket from a RIB to give himself greater mobility, an essential element of survival.
Difficulties continued when the lifeboats were on the water. They were not fitted with on-load release hooks and in at least one case, in waves of up to two metres, a passenger had to help a crewman wrestle the forward hook free.
It was then found that three out of the four lifeboat engines would not start. The Zodiac RIBs came to the rescue, but they were not part of the life-saving appliances, they had not undertaken drills for this situation and they had to work out how to tow the lifeboats safely on the fly.
There was no leadership and nobody was clear about what to do.
On at least one lifeboat nobody could find a sea-anchor to put out and the boat turned beam-on to the waves. It rolled so severely that at times, its gunwhales were underwater.
Passengers were not organised to row the open lifeboats out of trouble.
Thermal Protective Aids, packed in plastic bags, were handed out with no information about what they were for or how to don them. On one craft six TPAs were given out but only four were useable because the zips had corroded shut on the remainder.
Now, there is a number of issues that we’re not going to deal with in depth: Port State Control inspectors and the ship’s classification society did not identify problems with the lifeboats or the thermal protective aids; there were problems persuading the relevant Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre to respond to the emergency.
What that tell us is that when something goes wrong in that area it’s wise to assume that you’re on your own. Antarctica is like a diva – beauty to die for and an attitude that can kill you.
So, how do you prevent yourself from succumbing to this diva’s deadly beauty?
If you’re a passenger, make survival part of your adventure experience. Keep warm clothes handy. Memorise the route from your cabin to the muster station. After a drill or a safety briefing don’t assume that you’ll remember which one is your lifeboat. A good way to help it stick in your memory is to find a crewmember and ask him or her how the lifeboat works, how it’s lowered, how it’s unhooked, what survival equipment is onboard and where, and find out who is going to be in charge of it.
Find out how to don a thermal protective aid or survival suit.
Doing all that can add to the fun of your adventure and keep you alive if something does go wrong.
If you’re an officer or a crewman, remember that regular and realistic drills not only make sure that you know what to do in an emergency and how to work as a team, but also tests the equipment to make sure it works as it should, like lifeboat engines, and that you know where survival supplies are stored on the lifeboat.
Bear in mind that if you are going to command a lifeboat then the survival of its passengers may depend on your survival. Make sure you don a thermal protective aid when conditions are extremely cold: If you get too cold to function then you put everybody’s lives at risk.
That’s probably a good enough reason to check the condition of TPAs regularly – one of them might be yours.
And, needless to say, keep an eye on those watertight doors: are they watertight?
The master of Explorer appears to have treated the antarctic ice in much the same way as the ice he was familiar with in the Baltic. So perhaps a final lesson is that if your in unfamiliar waters and you think you’ve seen it before, maybe you haven’t.
This is Bob Couttie wishing you safe waters.