Sep 302008
 

MAIB’s report on the grounding of the 78-metre general cargo vessel Sea Mithril on the River Trent in fog three times in 30 minutes while under pilotage is certainly worth the read. It deserves to be mandatory reading for officers, those who aspire to
be officers, and for pilots

Sea Mithril is equipped with azimuth propulsion controls by joysticks on the bridge console. About a month before the incident Torbulk, the ship manager, sent instructions to its fleet that masters should ensure that someone else handles the controls during during critical periods so that the master could move around and maintain a good command overview.

That instruction was ignored on Sea Mithril so the master had to operate the azimuth controls, without being able to see the radar, along the tricky Trent in fog, an undeniably critical situation.

Apart from not knowing that the instruction had been ignored because it didn’t follow-up, Torbulk did not give guidance as to who should be trained or how or to what level of competency.

It’s worth pointing out, as the MAIB report does, that a certificate of competency in conventional steering is pretty irrelevant when it comes to steering with azimuth propulsion, which is a different skill set, but there is no competency standard for such systems.

Then there is one of the all-time-favourites making a guest appearance – the passage plan. Over the past five years MAIB has investigated 40 incidents involving vessels of 100 gt to 3,000 gt in which poor passage planning was a causal factor. Here was another one.

Sea Mithril’s passage plan was a list of waypoints, courses and headings to steer. It wasn’t laid out on the chart used aboard, BA 109 Plan B, but, then, a passage plan is a lot more than plotting course lines. It includes bridge organisation, equipment and port entry prearations. The one aboard Sea Mithril appears to have been rudimentary, possibly because the master expected the pilot to do everything.

While we’re at it, let’s take as look at that chart. At a scale of 1:50,000 it’s the largest scale chart produced by the UK Hydrographic Office for Humber, Trent and Ouse but doesn’t include much detail on depth and so forth in the Trent. In part this is because given the fast-changing river it’s hard to keep up with changes.

A far better option is a chart produced by Associated British Ports Humber at 1:10,000, in the area of the grounding, for its pilots. Other than pilots and a few local boaties hardly anyone knows they exist because ABP Humber hasn’t done a very good job of telling anyone about them. Visiting ships, like Sea Mithril aren’t likely to know about them.

Naturally, the pilot aboard the Sea Mithril carried a copy of the ABP Humber chart, he even put it on the navigation console, but the master didn’t know because, as is depressingly often the case, the master-pilot exchange was inadequate. They did not compare the pilot’s intentions with the passage plan so there was no need to look at the chart, something that might have given the master a better appreciation of the circumstances and hazards.

It’s common for pilots on the Trent to take the helm themselves rather than use the ship’s helmsman. In part this is because it gives them greater control when negotiating the tight turns found on the Trent but also, more worrying, because of the low competency of the helmsmen provided. In many cases, even though a vessel has the required number of certificated seamen, there are no competent helmsmen on board.

On occasion, masters expect the pilot to take the helm so don’t provide the necessary personnel.

Another reason for pilots preferring to take the helm themselves is that it can be difficult to gauge the rate of turn of vessels fitted with azimuth propulsion units, or things like Becker rudders, which we’ve covered before. Pilots used to this type of equipment feel more comfortable controlling it themselves.

The pilot on the Sea Mithril didn’t have that experience which is why the master, the only person on the ship who could handle the azimuth propulsion was at the helm.

This is where another star of maritime accident causation appears – bridge team management, or rather lack of it. We’re now in 20 metre visibility navigating the twisty River Trent without a functioning bridge team. The pilot isn’t getting the support he needs from the ship’s officers and the master’s overloaded controlling the azimuth propulsion because he hasn’t distributed tasks.

A lookout warns that he can see lights of ships at berth apparently very close and everyone on the bridge gets alarmed but the pilot doesn’t know what they’re excited about because they’re speaking Russian and no-one thinks to tell him what’s going on. They’re so busy talking to each other that they don’t hear instructions from the pilot and the pilot doesn’t know what the master’s doing at the controls and because of the fog there are no visual clues to tip him off.

First the ship grounds at her stem as the master tried to avoid the ships at berth. Next the master puts her full ahead and to starboard, pocketing her towards the opposite bank. The pilot intervenes and asks for her to go to port but the vessel ran aground quite gently on the soft mud bottom.

As it happens, Sea Mithril was suitable for NAABSA berths. That is, berths where the vessel is Not Always Afloat But Safely Aground. With high tide 25 minutes away, the pilot felt the best thing to do was for her to stay where she was until she could float off. Instead, the master put her on full astern.

After a few minutes, just before high tide, she refloated and headed astern towards the other bank. The master applied full ahead, but the vessel still grounded, although briefly and was able to come alongside the wharf.

The result of all this was badly a damaged azimuth propulsion unit and costly repairs.

So, lots of lessons there to think over. Don’t be a stick in the mud, let’s have your comments.

MAIB report on the Sea Mithril grounding

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