This week the first of a two parter on the explosion aboard the chemical tanker Bow Mariner
Listen To The Podcast
…90 minutes after Third Officer Lugen Ortilano sent that distress call, the 174 metre long chemical tanker Bow Mariner was 77 metres down on the bottom of the Atlantic, 53.5 nautical miles off the Virginia coast. Twenty one of her 27 crew were dead or dying. More than thirteen and a half million litres of ethyl alcohol, 864 thousand litres of heavy fuel oil and 216 thousand litres of diesel had entered the ecosystem leaving a trail of pollution two and a half kilometres by 56 kilometres.
The Bow Mariner and three quarters of her crew met their end because of mismanagement, ignorance, incompetence, intolerance and fraud.
Her voyage to the seabed began a month earlier, on January 24, 2004 at Al Jubail, Saudi Arabia when cargoes of 22,216 tonnes of methyl tert-butyl ether were loaded into 22 tanks along with 13.5 million litres of ethanol for final discharge in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She set sail for Port Said, Egypt under the command of Captain Efstratios Kavouras, with Chief Officer Spiridon Melles and Chief Engineer Legantis-Eley Anasthasiou, all of whom were Greek, the rest of the crew were Filipino.
It was a significant moment for Third Officer Ortilano, it was his first voyage as a licenced officer..
The cargo loading was supervised by Chief Engineer Melles. He did not trust his Filipino subordinates so he’d stay in the cargo control room when loading or unloading, and dozed in a chair when he felt tired. This was common practice throughout the fleet.
Owned by Odfjell Asia and Singapore flagged, the Bow Mariner had an inert gas system so that cargo could be padded with nitrogen and empty tanks could be given a non-explosive atmosphere after discharge but it wasn’t used. There was no international regulation requiring it for the Bow Mariner but
the ship’s operator, Ceres Hellenic Ship Enterprises required tanks to be inerted at all times unless being inspected or maintained. It was a requirement that was commonly ignored in the Ceres fleet of 21 chemical tankers. In practice, inerting was only carried out when required by a port state or facilit and Third Officer Ortilano had never seen it used.
Why was the company requirement for tanks to be inerted at all time ignored? Maybe the then-Chief Officer of a sister ship give a clue. He dismissed the company’s cargo and ballast operations manual because his 30 years experience with chemical tankers was all he needed to do his job.
Captain Kavouras evidently thought so, too. And he was wrong.
Because the ship carried two totally enclosed lifeboats, either capable of carrying the ship’s entire compliment. the Bow Mariner did not carry immersion suits and none were aboard. Each lifeboat carried five Thermal Protective Aids. It was considered enough. That, too, was wrong.
A little more than an hour before departure from Port Said, second assistant engineer Edimar Aguilar boarded the Bow Mariner. His predecessor passed him on the gangplank. There should have been at least a 72 hour hand-over but Aguilar’s predecessor was discharged for cause and getting him off the ship took precedence.
Like the rest of those who survived, Aguilar did not complete the required familiarisation when he joined the ship. Those below the rank of chief engineer or chief officer were prohibited from reading the safety quality and environmental protection management system, the SQEMS.
That document mandated safety procedures and defined the duties of those on board. On his first day aboard, Aguilar asked Chief Engineer Anasthasiou about procedures aboard the ship, he was told off for asking. He would be given verbal job orders, was only to do what he was told, and his only administrative duty was to fill in the log.
The senior officers delegated no significant responsibilities, did not train their subordinates in the technical or administrative aspects of the job, and didn’t let them do the job they were supposed to do. Filipino junior officers were not allowed to eat in the officers mess.
The crew were subject to verbal abuse and threats. So much so that they were too scared to question any action by the senior officers, no matter how unsafe.
It was not a happy ship. The situation was not uncommon on other vessels in the fleet.
Yet there was worse. Fire and boat drills were not being carried out monthly. Other training was scheduled and recorded in the minutes of the monthly safety committee meeting but not actually conducted. Parts of the safety committee meeting minutes were copied from one month to the next, complete with the same typographical errors.
Bow Mariner arrived in Kali Limenes, Greece, on February 7, and loaded 1,200 tonnes of heavy fuel oil. On February 12 she arrived in Algecieras, Spain, and took on 200 tonnes of light. At 1600, now fully fuelled, she departed Algecieras for New York with an ETA of February 23. After unloading, she was due for a charter’s inspection in Houston, Texas.
Crossing the Atlantic, Bow Mariner hit heavy seas and gale force winds. She was forced to reduce speed. The vessel rolled and pitched, the decks were flooded. There was no opportunity to carry out the maintenance to make her ready for the charter’s inspection.
On February 25, battered but undamaged and two days late, she arrived in New York and over the next three days unloaded the cargo of MTBE. The 22 empty tanks were not inerted.
At 0500, Bow Mariner departed for Houston, Texas, under pressure from the upcoming charter’s inspection, lacking what would prove to be critical survival equipment, her crew inadequately trained, her safety documents little more than fiction, and vital safety procedures ignored.
A little before 10.00, Captain Kavouras gave an astonishing order that would lead to the loss of the ship and the deaths of 18 seafarers, including his own.
Join us next week for part two.
This is Bob Couttie wishing you good watch.