She was big, she was fast, she could take a beating, but a whipping shook her to pieces
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It’s 17th January, 2007, in Antwerp, Belgium and the containership MSC Napoli is preparing to depart on route for Sines, Portugal with 2,819 containers onboard. It is a voyage she will not complete.
At 11.30 the UK Meteorological Office gave its weather report: German Bight Humber Thames Dover Wight Portland southwesterly 6 to gale 8 increasing severe gale 9, perhaps storm 10 later. rough or very rough, occasionally high in Portland later. Rain. moderate or good
With a relatively long, narrow hull, 275.66 metres long and 38.18 metres wide, too broad to pass through the Panama Canal, she was built for speed, her design based on that of a smaller vessel, with the engine room and accommodation block about three quarters of the ship’s length from her bow. Forward of the engine room the hull was longitudinally framed, the shell plate was reinforced by closely spaced stiffeners or longitudinals, running fore and aft.
At the engine room forward bulkhead the structure changed to being transversely framed with plate floors. How strong was she? How resistant to buckling was she?
At various time she’d been in class with two classifications societies, Det Norsk Veritas and Bureau Veritas. Both adhered to Unified Requirement S11 introduced in 1992 common to all members of the International Association of Classification Societies. That specifies that it is only necessary to calculate bending strength for one fifth of a ship’s length either side of amidships. It’s up to the individual classification society whether or not they bother to calculate strength outside that narrow band.
Today, it’s common for strength to be assessed using a mathematical model of the entire hull, rather than the central cargo holds within the two fifths of a ships length defined by S11 and most classification societies now routinely check the ability of the bottom shell and inner bottom plating to resist buckling forces outside that area.
When built in 1991 by Samsung Heavy Industries in South Korea, she was one of the largest containerships ever made with a capacity of 4,419 teu, but a shadow of today’s Emma Maersk with its capability to carry 11,000 teu.
The existence of MSC Napoli was thanks to an American trucker Malcom McLean. In 1937, watching cotton bales being unloaded from his truck into a ship in Hoboken, New Jersey, he realised that there was a better, faster way to transport goods. It wasn’t until 1956 that his idea became reality when a converted tanker, the Ideal-X, carried just 58 containers from Port Newark, New Jersey, to Houston, Texas. It wasn’t until the International Standards Organisation standardised the size of containers that containerisation really took off. That standard was the twenty foot container. That’s why the capacity of vessels is measured by how many twenty foot containers they can carry, or TEU, twenty foot equivalent units.
In 1966 the first international containership voyage when from Port Elizabeth in the United States, to Rotterdam. It was a revolutionary concept. Weight no longer mattered, so long as it fitted in the box. Well, it didn’t matter to the shipper or the receiver because the price was based on the size of the box.
There was rapid expansion, by 1983 the world container industry transported the equivalent of 12 million TEUs. In 2007, the figure was 141 million TEUs. Today, the world’s cellular container vessel fleet stands at 4,178 , with more than 1400 on order with a typical lifespan of about 26 years, two and a half times the rest of the world’s fleet. Bigger, faster ships pushed the envelope of technical knowledge, and demand for faster turn-arounds stretched the limits of safety.
There was a cost to be paid for size and speed, a cost that, in the next 24 hours, will be paid by MSC Napoli.
She departed Capetown on December 29, four days late. To make up for lost time, port calls at Hamburg and Le Havre were cancelled and MSC Napoli arrived in Felixstowe on the morning of 13th January, now six days late because one of her four main engine turbochargers had failed.
Between Felixstowe and Antwerp, a second turbocharger and her main engine governor had also failed. She’s due in Sines, Portugal, on 18th January.
Time is pressing.
No technician was available to fix the main engine governor so engine speed is controlled by a fuel lever mounted on the side of the engine.
At 0505 the weather report says: Wight Portland Plymouth southwesterly 7 to severe gale 9, occasionally storm 10, perhaps violent storm 11 later. Very rough or high rain or showers. moderate, occasionally poor.
The master, chief engineer and a technical superintendant discuss the problem with the governor and decide it’s safe to sail and get it fixed in Sines. To ensure she can depart on any tide she’ll be ballasted to have a maximum draught of 13metres after the containers are loaded.
Different ballast configurations are fed into the ship’s loading computer together with the planned distribution and weights of the containers.
Ships are not the stiff structures they appear to be. They bend under the influence of waves, the weight of cargo, and ballast among other things.
It was quite normal for MSC Napoli to be upwards in the middle when loaded, a condition called hogging. The forces that cause the bending are called bending moments: too much and the ship breaks.
There are two maximum allowable bending moments, one in still water, the harbour bending moment, and the seagoing maximum bending moment which is 76 per cent of the harbour bending moment to allow for wave action.
The loading computer on the Napoli calculates that the configuration needed to set the aft draught to 13 metres gives her a harbour bending moment well within the permitted maximum at 88 per cent, but her seagoing bending moment is above the maximum at 116 per cent.
The master approves the loading configuration because the ballasting can be adjusted to bring her below the seagoing maximum bending moment as she heads down river and out to sea.
Before sailing, the chief officer reads the vessel’s draught marks forward, amidships and aft from the dockside, and feeds them into the loading computer to calculate the deadweight based on the draught and compare it to the calculated from known weights such as cargo, fuels and water ballast. “Known weight” is probably a misnomer for the cargo because there are many reasons for a shippers or packers to underdeclare the weights of their containers. The difference between the two is known as the deadload. The chief officer does the figures and estimates a deadload of 1,250 tonnes. Large deadloads are not unusual on the MSC Napoli. By the time she departs her berth at Antwerp at 0812 with a river pilot on board, the turbochargers have been fixed, but not the main engine governor. At about 1000 MSC Napoli passes through the harbour locks down the River Schelde and the chief officer starts to adjust the ballast. By 1510 he’d finished, with the seagoing bending moments reduced to 99 per cent of the permissible maximum and the aft draught increased to 13.5 metres.
Nobody tells the pilot of the changes in draught and trim. The river pilot disembarks at 1521 and the Napoli passes through the Dover Strait to transit the English Channel early the next morning.
The weather gets worse.
During the 0400-0800 watch she rolls and pitches moderately, occasionally pounding heavily, with spray coming over her forecastle. The poor weather causes problems with the main engine. At about 0600 the watch engineer tells the chief engineer that the engine revolutions are fluctuating wildly and a lower average RPM is needed to prevent the engine from tripping. The master assesses the situation from the bridge and agrees to reduce speed. The fuel lever is adjusted to a setting that would normally give an engine speed of about 71rpm, and a vessel speed of about 17 knots.
At about 0800, the engineer monitoring the setting of the fuel lever “screwed down” the lever in a position which had generally produced an average engine speed of 71 rpm. He then left the engine to undertake routine maintenance in other areas of the engine room. By the time MSC Napoli was about 45 miles south east of the Lizard Point in Cornwall, she was heading into storm force winds.
She was still occasionally pitching heavily into high seas but was no longer rolling significantly. Her course was 240 and her engine was at an RPM which would normally give her a speed of 17kts. She was making good 11 knots speed over ground. Shortly after 1100, she was hit by several large, powerful waves, that nearly knocked one crewmember of his feet in a shower cubicle.
Five minutes later there was an ominous cracking sound. Alarm went off in the engine control room, indicating a high level of fluid in the engine room bilge. Then came another bilge alarm, then the engine room flood alarm. The chief engineer was on the bridge when the first assistant engineer telephoned him about the problem.
The chief engineer told the Master the engine room might be flooding and headed down towards the Engine Control Room. Meanwhile the third assistant engineer went to the bottom plates in the engine room to investigate. There he saw water spraying from the general service pump delivery pipe just forward of the main engine. The pump was not running and he quickly shut both its delivery and suction valves, stopping the flow of water. The delivery pipe had sheared cleanly across, and the two sections had separated by about 150mm.
He also saw a lot of water sloshing around under the engine room bottom plates. As he started to return to the engine control room, the tank top forward of the main engine appeared to open up across the ship , and a wall of oily water shot upwards before falling down across the pump flat and bottom plates. He quickly evacuated the area and returned to the engine control room. After being briefed by the third engineer, the Chief Engineer also went down to the bottom plates. A lot of water was swirling across the tank tops and under the bottom plates and from what appeared to be cracks in the tank top.
It also seemed there was a large fracture in the side shell plating on the starboard side close to the sea chest. Many of the cooling pumps in the pump flat had stopped. The chief engineer stopped the main engine before returning to the Engine Control Room and called the master, briefed him that he thought there had been a serious structural failure, then ordered everyone to leave the engine room. As the engine room was evacuated, the master went onto the starboard bridge wing. He could see that the ship’s side plating just below the bridge was bulging outwards.
As the ship rolled to port he saw what appeared to be a vertical fracture below the waterline. He saw the same on the port side, thought MSC Napoli had broken her back, and decided to abandon ship.
A distress message was sent on MF DCS at 1125 and the crew started to assemble on the bridge. Minutes later, all electrical power went off for a moment until the emergency generator kicked in. By now, the ship was stopped in the water, with her starboard side exposed to the wind and sea.
The 26 crewmembers were lucky: The master had been diligent in carrying out abandon ship drills, they were trained and knew what to do. He sent the bosun and three of the crew to prepare the port lifeboat for launch. Others were sent to the provision locker to get cases of bottled water.
After all crew had been accounted for, the master sounded seven long, and one short blast on the ship’s whistle to tell the crew to make their way to the lifeboat station wearing immersion suits over their lifejackets. The master then called Ushant Traffic on VHF radio and told them he and his crew were abandoning into the lifeboat.
Evacuation went according to plan, the lifeboat descended 16 metres into the water and the bosun released the fore and aft falls from inside the lifeboat. However, because of the cramped conditions and his immersion suit, the crewman sitting nearest the forward painter release could not pull the release pin sufficiently far to disengage the painter. Eventually it was cut by the chief engineer, with a knife, who was able to reach the painter through the lifeboat’s forward hatch.
The EPIRB and SART were activated and they waited, uncomfortable, cramped, seasick, but alive until rescue came. Two tugs took the disabled MSC Napoli under tow but the battering seas continued to take their toll.
Finally, to prevent her breaking up or sinking, it was decided to beach her at Branscombe Bay, Dorset, later to be torn apart with explosive charges and taken away, piece by piece, well into the next year.
MSC Napoli was dead.
How could an apparently well-found ship like MSC Napoli snap in a storm that should have been well within her limits? Investigators looked for corrosion and fatigue. There was none.
As we’ll find out in Part Two of the Case Of The Bendy Boxer more than the boat was bent.