A troubled officer of the watch, alone on the bridge, was so distracted by a disturbing email that he ignored radio warnings that his containership was standing into danger as it grounded in the Gulf of Suez, says a report from Germany’s BSU. Although the psychological health of seafarers is an issue, German investigators make a particular note of the need to keep an adequate lookout, adequate bridge manning and the use of bridge alarms.
Shortly before dawn on 30 May, 2008, the containership Norfolk Express was travelling along the southern edge of the Gulf of Suez Traffic Separation Scheme with the Polish chief officer on watch since 0400. At 0407, although it was still dark, he send the lookout to check on the temperature of reefers containers and clean the companionways. At 0449, after two course corrections to overtake another vessel, he went to the radio station to check his emails.
He was so severely distracted by the emails,which concerned personal relationships that had troubled him since before joining the vessel, that, although not specifically referred to in the BSU report, he appears to have gone into a state of fugue and lost connection with what was going on around him.
He failed to make course corrections or change the chart on the chart plotter.
As the vessel moved towards grounding, Egyptian radio operators, concerned about her movement, called the vessel almost continuously from 0458 but did not get a response until 0506, when the vessel was travelling at 15.3 knots speed over ground. The chief officer then stopped the ship’s engines and she grounded softly two minutes later, finally stranding at 0512.
The chief officer did not all the captain, who was awoken by the vibration of the ship as she grounded. Asked how it happened, the chief officer said “I have no idea” and was unable to give any further information until 1500, having been taken to his cabin by an escort.
Among similar incidents are those of the close call of the ferry Maersk Dover and the grounding of the general cargo ship Lerrix. In all three cases the designated lookout had either been off the bridge or on the bridge but carrying out other tasks, effectively leaving the officer of the watch on his own. In the case of the Lerrix and Norfolk Express the officers of the watch were under great strain related to personal issues. On Maersk Dover, like Norfolk Express, the officers had been distracted by communications of one sort or another.
A number of lessons arise from the incident, the most obvious relates to lookouts. Many of us prefer to be alone when dealing with personal issues and its tempting to send the lookout away so we can be alone with our thoughts. Unfortunately, those are the very conditions under which we need to have a lookout present in case we get so deep in our own concerns we lose track of what’s going on.
Whatever the psychological state of the officer of the watch a lookout might have made the difference.
At the same time, two alarms were not functioning, the bridge watch alarm which should have sounded every 12 minutes, and the echo sounder depth alarm. BSU says that it is uncertain that these would have alerted the chief officer to the situation.
Two GPS waypoint alarms sounded but were not responded to. Says BSU: “Simply structured alarms as are used in the conventional alrm system and the echo sounder system tend to induce staff to switch them off, as was the case here, as such alarms are felt to be disturbing and troublesome”. It’s a problem currently under review and certainly needs to be addressed.