November 2012 saw Michael Gallagher, master of the workboat catamaran Windcat 9 with 15 people on board when it hit a large floating military target in Donna Nook Air Weapons Range on 21 November 2012, fined £1,500 and told to pay £8,082 in costs plus a victim surcharge of £120. It was a familiar situation, with the magistrate commenting that Gallagher “should have kept a proper lookout at all times using all available means and be competent in using all his electronic navigational equipment” but i raises an issue and opportunity to get safety culture right in a new, fast-developing industry.
At the time the collision Windcat 9 was estimated to travelling around 23 knots. The hull of the Windcat 9 was badly damaged, causing extensive flooding. Luckily no one was hurt, but there could have been multiple fatalities as a result of this high speed collision which threw several passengers from their seats.
An investigation of the incident by the Marine Accident Investigation Branch, was combined with another that occurred the same day, the contact of Island Panther with turbine I-6, in Sheringham Shoal Wind Farm.
Offshore wind farms are a new growth industry, as of January 2014 the UK has by far the largest capacity of offshore wind farms with 3,681 MW. Much growth has occurred in the offshore sector due to opposition by local groups on shore which frequently oppose planning permission.
With that growth the number of incidents involving wind farms has rising quickly. MAIB records an increasing number of incidents involving wind farm passenger transfer vessels. These have been predominantly close-quarters situations, groundings, and light contacts with wind towers, quaysides and other vessels.
Earlier transfer catamaran incidents include a 2009 grounding of a catamaran on passage to a wind farm in daylight and in good visibility. One of the five passengers suggested a different passage to the master. The vessel was slowed down as the master entered a new waypoint into the plotter. When he next looked at the vessel’s cursor on the chart plotter, he noticed that the vessel was heading towards a sandbank, where the vessel subsequently grounded. The vessel refloated on the rising tide with no damage. The new route was removed, the master underwent additional training and revised passage instructions were promulgated by the vessel’s owners.
In October 2010 a workboat departed a wind farm in the Baltic Sea in daylight and moderate visibility. The crew were unsure of the vessel’s position and as they were checking the chart plotter, the vessel made contact with a wind turbine transition piece. There was no significant damage but the company issued guidance on the need to maintain an effective lookout.
A close-quarters situation occurred on 22 April 2011 when a wind farm workboat was returning to port at 25 knots, in daylight and hazy conditions, which reduced the visibility to about 2nm. A patrol vessel was in the immediate vicinity. As the vessels closed, the workboat failed to give way in accordance with the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea
(COLREGS) resulting in a passing distance of less than a cable. It was found that the lookout was engaged in other duties and that the master failed to effectively monitor the vessel’s passage despite the navigation aids being fully operational. The owner re-evaluated its master’s training and assessment procedures.
Another contact took place in October 2012: An 18m workboat was on passage to a wind farm, with stores on board. It was
dark but the visibility was good as the master handed the con to the deckhand, instructing him to follow the course on the plotter. As the master made refreshments, the deckhand decided to take a shorter inshore route than normal. As the deckhand focused on adjusting the chart plotter’s range, the workboat made contact with a charted floating object.
There are currently around 400 workboats operating in support of the offshore renewable energy sector. Many of these are high-speed craft which are used to transfer technicians and other personnel to and from the shore and around the various sites offshore. The crews that man these vessels are often recruited from the fishing or leisure industries.
The skills needed to operate small high-speed craft safely are subtly different from those needed when operating in the fishing or leisure sectors and the skills gap is likely to grow as the renewable energy industry moves even further offshore in the future. As such, there is a clear potential for a rise in the number and severity of accidents unless action is taken to ensure that vessels’ crews have the necessary competencies needed to operate their craft safely.
Says MAIB Chief Investigator Steven Clinch: “(The Windcat 9 and Island Panther incidents) share many common safety issues especially with respect to the standard of watchkeeping observed by the crews of both vessels. In particular, the MAIB’s investigations have highlighted a need for robust crew recruitment, training and assessment procedures to ensure the supply of mariners with the right skills. Flexible but rigorous watchkeeping practices are necessary together with recognition by the industry and regulator that the reliance on paper charts to navigate high-speed passenger transfer vessels is impractical and does not reflect the current custom of the trade.
“Perhaps the most noteworthy outcomes of the two investigations is the conclusion that there is a compelling need for the burgeoning offshore renewable energy industry to produce a comprehensive best practice guide for operators of workboats and to develop an effective means for promulgating safety lessons across the industry.”
Each new industry, from air travel to spacecraft, nuclear power and offshore oil/gas has placed greater and greater emphasis on safety. Attitudes and procedures that were once thought appropriate in grandfather industries liked shipping are no longer deemed enough in their descendants. As a new industry wind farms start with a blank slate and a chance to get it right erly in thegame.
As Steve Clinch says: “There is an opportunity for the offshore renewable energy industry to establish, at an early stage of its development, a shared safety culture which, if the opportunity is taken, will undoubtedly prevent accidents and save lives in the future.”