Inspectors from the UK’s Marine Accident Investigation Branch, MAIB, boarded the Singapore-registered bulker Alam Pintar in Hamburg they discovered a crime: The master had tampered with ship’s documents and the voyage data recorder to conceal evidence that not only had the vessel collided with, and sunk, the fishing vessel Etoile des Ondes with the loss of a life, but had ignored obligations to those in distress. Crewmember testimony of events ‘conflicted’ with AIS and radar recordings from other sources.
Any decision to prosecute will be up to Singapore, the Alam Pintar’s flag state.
The newly-released MAIB report raises a number of issues of frustration and concern.
The case was at the centre of a controversy earlier this year in which MAIB issued a Safety Digest which forcefully discussed the investigation with regard to masters’ responsibilities towards those in distress after it was discovered that several vessels could and should have responded to distress signals from Etoile des Ondes without naming them. Lloyds List carried out a ‘name and shame’ exposé which lead to an angry response from MAIB’s then-head, Rear Admiral Stephen Meyer and the suspension of the Safety Digest.
Of concern is that MAIB discovered that some vessels who should have responded – required under SOLAS Chapter V Regulation 33 and UNCLOS Article 98 – were not aware of th obligation to respond without being selected to respond. Hence ships’ masters expected to be asked by Jobourg MRCC to do so and were apparently unaware that they were required to do so whether or not a request was made and despite the mayday relay: “All ships in this area are requested to have a sharp lookout, to proceed to this area – to make contact and report any information”
A second issue is that some OOWs did not alert the master, the sole authority to respond, to the mayday signals.
A third issue relates to VHF radios. Says the report: “Vessels are required to keep VHF radio watches to ensure important or urgent messages are clearly heard when broadcast. This includes intership broadcasts.
”On one vessel, the OOW claimed not to have heard the VHF broadcast. It is
probable that the volume of the receiver had been reduced to such a level that
the broadcast was inaudible as no fault was found with the VHF equipment
and these broadcasts were clearly heard on the other vessels. Additionally, the
preceding DSC alert should have prompted the OOW to monitor the VHF for a
There clearly a need for masters to be aware of their obligations towards a vessel in distress, ensure that OOWs know that they must alert the master on receipt of a mayday, an ensure that VHF radios are not reduced so much that they are inaudible and should be closely monitored on receipt of a DSC.
Norman Voyager immediately responded to the distress flares sent up by Etoile des Ondes: “Exemplary seamanship was demonstrated by the actions of the officers and
crew of Norman Voyager in immediately reporting the flares to Jobourg MRCC
and then proceeding, without question, to the assistance of the vessel in
distress. The conduct of the rescue was safe, efficient and in the best traditions
of the merchant navy”.
Three other vessels responded to the emergency: Manfred, ferry Barfleur, and tanker Delta Pioneer.
Says the MAIB report:”Even if, in the master’s opinion, it is unreasonable or unnecessary for him to respond to a distress, he still has the duty of noting this, along with reasons to support his decision, in the GMDSS and ship’s logbooks”.
However, these issues should not overshadow more fundamental questions about why the accident happened.
Etoile des Ondes did not assess the inherent risks of fishing in a high traffic density area and an appropriate lookout was not maintained. Modifications made to the vessel reduced sternwards visibility from the wheelhouse.
Unfortunately, lessons learned from an earlier MOB fatality on the Etoile des Ondes were ‘unlearned’ overtime. The fatality was not wearing a lifejacket, having suffered the accidental inflation of his preferred ‘bib and braces’ flotation device.
On Alam Pintar an inexperienced ‘4th Officer’ was on watch with a deck cadet. The decision to allow Alam Pintar’s 4th officer to stand as the officer in charge of a navigational watch indicated a disregard for explicit company instructions to the contrary says MAIB.
Says the report: “Alam Pintar’s initial alteration of 5º to starboard to avoid collision was not substantial enough to be apparent to the skipper of Etoile des Ondes, even if he had been keeping an effective lookout. It is possible the OOW did not take more substantial action as he was concerned not to stray across the path of other vessels navigating alongside his vessel. In such a case, and remembering his lack of experience, it would have been entirely reasonable, even at this early stage, for him to have called the master.
”Initially, the alteration did seem to be effective, but it was subsequently counteracted by (from the perspective of the OOW) random changes of course by Etoile des Ondes. The OOW also found it difficult to identify the fishing vessel’s navigation lights against the high powered halogen deck lights.
”Etoile des Ondes’ powerful deck lights probably impaired the skipper’s night vision. Glare from the working lights could have reduced the distance from which other vessels could be identified. It is for these reasons that merchant shipping vessels go to great lengths to ensure the bridge is blacked out effectively during the hours of darkness, thus ensuring that watchkeepers maintain good night vision.
”Alam Pintar’s next alteration of course, of 13º to port, was still not sufficient to
be readily observable by the skipper of Etoile des Ondes. As the OOW waited
to see if this action had been effective, it was counteracted by Etoile des Ondes
also changing her course. By the time the OOW realised there could be a collision, it was too late for him to take further, effective, avoiding action.
”The actions taken by the OOW of Alam Pintar indicate a lack of appreciation of what could be expected from a vessel engaged in fishing. These vessels are given a special status for a reason. By the nature of the gear used for fishing, they are unable to substantially deviate from the courses needed to complete the fishing operation. These courses may not be a steady course or speed and there may be abrupt changes of course depending on the kind of fishing they are engaged in. It is therefore important that action taken to avoid collision is early, substantial and closely monitored for effectiveness.”
“…After the collision, Alam Pintar’s master was informed by his OOW that there had ‘probably’ been a collision and that the lights of the fishing vessel had since been observed still lit. When the master looked at the ARPA he saw a target, which he assumed to be Etoile des Ondes.”
What happened next overshadows much of the report:
”As the master had only uncorroborated information that the vessel and her crew
were safe, he should have, at least, tried to contact them by VHF to verify their
situation. It is the master’s responsibility to the other vessel, under the UNCLOS,
to “ascertain that it has no need of further assistance”. This does not mean
“hoping” or “assuming” the other vessel is safe; it means establishing for certain,
before continuing on passage.
”The master, by assuming Etoile des Ondes was still afloat, and deciding to continue, was in disregard of his responsibilities. However, once he had reason to believe that Etoile des Ondes and her crew were not safe, his action in ignoring the “Mayday Relay” and continuing on passage was illegal, immoral and against all the traditions of the sea.
Attempts to alter or destroy evidence are both illegal and foolish. Accident
investigators have a mass of information, both on board and elsewhere, which
will rapidly identify such actions. Most technical recording devices will record
all attempts to tamper with the evidence. Such attempts serve purely to turn an
accident into a crime.”