Concerns are arising in the industry that shortcuts will be taken during the countdown to the 5 May ban on raw ore exports leading to a greater chances of liquefaction and loss of ships. Indonesia is a supplier of ore to China and in 2010 three vessels capsized and sank in less than a month with loss of all on board.
Pressure is on to load as much ore as possible before the deadline, which was advanced from 2014. Inevitably that means more pressure on masters and surveyors and a greater temptation to issue fraudulent documents regarding moisture in cargo. While responsible P&I clubs take steps to ensure that their surveyors do a professional job, others have a questionable reputation.
Because water does not compress it can act as a lubricant between finely divided particles. Heavy weather can cause a ‘wet’ cargo to act like a fluid, flowing to one side of the hold then locking in place, a process that can be repeated. The result is, all too often, a unrecoverable, increasing list, one which can capsize a vessel in mere minutes.
Even in these days of electronics, AIS and EPIRBS, the only evidence of liquefaction is often the disappearance of the vessel with its crew. The speed of the capsize may leave little time for distress calls, shipping routes between Indonesia and China are often ‘AIS blind’ with few land-based receivers online, and EPIRBS may become trapped with the capsize of the ship or may not be deployed in time.
In the recent case of the Vinalines Queen it appears that the master ordered all non-essential crew to lifeboats as he ran for shore with a fatally listing vessel. There does not appear to have been time to launch the lifeboats. All except one seafarer were lost.
There have been a number of calls with liquified cargo but, as an article in the April issue of Professional Mariner by David Tyler notes, these are rarely reported or investigated. On 10 September 2009, Vinalines Mighty, was forced to return to return to the port of Paradip, India, after loading iron ore fines at the port and developing a list while underway.
Liquefaction of iron ore fines was implicated in the sinking of MV Black Rose in September 2009 with the death of the ship’s chief engineer as he desperately tried to save the vessel. MV Asian Forest, which sank in July 2009 off Mangalore and remains off the Indian coast, was another victim of the same phenomenon.
While there are recommendations to use the so-called ‘can test’, it is not necessarily reliable and masters and chief officers do not usually have the scientific expertise or equipment, to assess moisture levels independently.
P&I clubs and industry organisations such as Intercargo have been expressing concern regarding liquefaction for the past few years. However, Indonesia’s decision in February this year to advance its ban on raw ore exports to 5 May has added an extra layer of concern.
While most cases of liquefaction occur after the Pacific rainy season in the last quarter of the year, poorly stored ore stocks can retain high moisture, and the typhoon/hurricane season begins in May, increasing the chance of vessels running into bad weather which encourages liquefaction.
Meanwhile, new IMO amendment on the carriage of hazardous cargo are in the works but will not enter into force until 2015, leaving a three year gap between compliance and safety.