We’ve all had them: Those moments of thoughtlessness when knowledge, experience and even reason seem to take a holiday and we get hurt and kick ourselves for doing something we knew to be unsafe but didn’t think about it and wonder why we did so. Sergey Gaponov will not be wondering why he stepped on a bight of rope: He was pulled overboard and has not be found.
Sergey was a crewman on the general cargo ship Sea Melody. He was a 40 year old Russian able seaman and had obtained a Certificate of Competency as a rating, forming part of a navigational watch, in 2002. This was his third consecutive tour of duty on Sea Melody which he had re-joined in November 2013. He was well regarded by his shipmates and had received positive reports on his conduct and ability during his time on the ship.
Sea Melody had discharged her cargo of steel products at Groveport on the River Trent and was required to move to another berth to load another cargo. At the time mandatory pilotage was not required for vessels moving from one berth to another. letter of guidance to the master from the port operator did not cover berth-to-berth movement.
The vessel was now in light condition, which would reduce the effectiveness of its bowthruster, and moored starboard side to with two headlines and two springs forward, and two sternlines and two springs aft.
Discharge finished at 1600 and the chief officer went ashore to read the vessel’s draught, which was 1.4m forward and 2.4m aft. On the quayside he met a shore linesman, who advised him of the vessel’s required position at the adjacent berth for loading cargo. The linesman also advised on the sequence in which the forward mooring ropes should be transferred from bollard to bollard during the move and the VHF frequency for ship to shore communications during the operation.
At 1830 it was dark. The master called the crew and prepared to manoeuvre the vessel from the control console on the starboard bridge wing. He did not, however, brief the crew on the mooring plan even though the ship’s SMS required it.
- The mooring crew to liaise with the master with regards to the mooring plan
- All personnel should be aware of the operations going on around them
- During operations there are safe places to stand, as well as dangerous ones. Never stand in a bight of rope
- During all mooring operations there shall be a responsible person in charge
Without the briefing the chief officer did not get the opportunity to be reminded of the information he had been given and to pass it on to the master.
And Sergey was not reminded about stepping on bights.
The flood stream was flowing at a rate of about 2 knots from ahead, and the wind was blowing off the berth and increasing in strength as the operation to move Sea Melody began. The master instructed the crew, all of whom carried portable VHF radios, to let go the aft mooring ropes and then ordered the forward mooring party, which consisted of a second officer and two seamen, to slack away the headlines.
The two second officers and one of the seamen were tending the two forward springs on the starboard side while the other seaman, Sergey Gaponov, worked alone on the port headline.
The master used the engine, helm and bowthrust to control the vessel, which moved away from the berth and into the centre of the river on three times during the manoeuvre.
The shore linesmen, whose VHF radios were set to channel 17, attempted to contact the master to inform him of the preferred sequence for transferring the mooring ropes from bollard to bollard on the wharf. But they were unable to do so. They called across from the wharf to the forward mooring party that the master should monitor VHF channel 17, but this message was relayed to the master as VHF channel 73.
The wind continued to increase in strength, up to Beaufort force 7, and it began to rain as the manoeuvre proceeded. The forward mooring party found it difficult to handle the mooring lines as the vessel veered off the berth into the river, and the master sent another second officer to assist them.
With all officers except for the master handling the lines there was no-one to maintain and overview of what was happening and no-one was looking at Sergey.
At about 1915 Sergey was heard to call out for help. His colleagues turned towards him. His left leg was caught in a bight of the headline and he was being pulled towards the bow as the vessel moved astern. The crewmen went to help Sergey, but could not stop him from being pulled over the bow due to the weight on the headline.
When the crewmen looked down from Sea Melody’s bow they saw Sergey face-down in the water. One man monitored his position while the others threw two lifebuoys, with lights and lines attached, that landed on the water close to Sergey, who remained motionless.
One of the men continued to monitor Sergey’s body, which was taken by the tidal stream along Sea Melody’s starboard side until he disappeared from sight beyond the vessel’s stern. The master instructed the crew to launch the vessel’s fast rescue craft (FRC) to search for Sergey and then reported the accident to the ship’s managerat 1917. The FRC was launched at 1920.
At 1927 the master called Humber Vessel Traffic Services (VTS) to report the accident and to request assistance and Humber VTS informed Humber Coastguard.
At 1938 the crew of the FRC recovered the lifebuoys from the opposite bank of the river, but found no trace of Sergey. A search and rescue (SAR) helicopter, fitted with an infra-red sensor to assist detection, was diverted from another mission and arrived at 1950. It began to search the river in conjunction with coastguard rescue teams and a Humber Rescue lifeboat.
The search for Sergey continued until 2200. The search resumed the following morning, with police divers in attendance, but Sergey’s body was not found.
We cannot know whether this tragedy would have happened had the master been given the guidance that didn’t reach him, or had he given the briefing required by the SMS or if someone had been supervising the operation but it certainly would not have happened if Sergey had not stepped on that rope.
Associated British Ports does now require vessels subject to mandatory pilotage while navigation the Humber to have a pilot aboard when changing berths. Torbulk has reminded crews of the need to follow SMS procedures, is evauating the use of auto-inflating lifejackets for crew involved in mooring operations and is asking crew to consider the deployment of an axe to part lines in circumstances like this one.
Watch your step.
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