One of the newest artifacts in London’s oldest church
is a ship’s bell. The lessons of the British Trent
are still relevant today.
Listen To The Podcast
The Church By The Tower
Near London’s Tower Hill Memorial to merchant seafarers who died in World War 1 and World War 2 is the church of All Hallows By The Tower. Established in 675 it’s the city’s eldest church at thirteen hundred years old.
It was here that John Quincy Adams, sixth president of the United States, was married in 1797. William Penn, who founded the state of Pennsylvania, was baptised and educated here.
In those good old days when getting out of line meant losing your head on Tower Hill’s execution block, your body would be brought to this church.
For centuries, London was a great port, so it’s no surprise that All Hallows By The Tower has a long-standing relationship with seafarers. In the south aisle is the Mariner’s Chapel and a book of remembrance with the names of those lost at sea at sea with no known grave.
On the wall beside the book is one of the church’s newest artifacts: a ship’s bell inscribed with the name “British Trent”. This is the story of why that bell is there.
British Trent’s Wars
Owned by BP Shipping, British Trent was a 177 metre long River-class tanker of 15,649 gross tonnes built in 1973. That year is significant because she carried two open lifeboats made of glass reinforced plastic. Amendments made in 1983 to the 1974 Safety Of Life At Sea convention did mandate totally enclosed lifeboats for ships like the British Trent but they only applied to ships built after 1st July 1986.
British Trent had certainly been through the wars, figuratively and literally. In 1975 in the Middle East she was hit by the Texaco Liverpool, which cracked her hull and split her main deck. Welded railway lines held her together until she could reach Amsterdam for full repairs.
1982 found her serving in the Falklands War. She completed her stint without harm.
Now it’s the morning of 3rd June 1993 and British Trent is about ten hours out of Antwerp on passage to Fiumicino, Italy, with a full cargo of more than 24,000 tonnes of unleaded gasoline in her 22 tanks.
The Voyage Begins
Aboard her are the Master, who’s been awake since 06.30 the previous day, 5 deck officers including 2 Third Officers, 6 engineer officers, 5 cadets, one of them a woman, and 17 ratings. The Master and officers are from the United Kingdom and Eire, except for the Second Officer who’s Polish. All carry the appropriate certificates of competency. The rest of the crew are from Sierra Leone. Two wives are also aboard.
Her route will take her by the Akkaert Bank, about 15 miles off the coast of Belgium. Her draught will allow only one metre of under keel clearance if she tries to cross the bank, too little for comfort. For safety, she’ll go south, then west around the Akkaert Bouy after dropping her pilot at the Wandelaar pilot boarding board ground.
Heading east towards the Akkaert Bouy and intending to embark a pilot at the Wandelaar pilot boarding ground is the Western Winner. Owned by Alpha Beta Investments of Liberia and flagged in Panama, she’s a bulk carrier on voyage from London to Vlissingen in the Netherlands with a part-cargo of copper dross. She has a Korean crew of 24. Her master and officers hold Panamanian licences.
A north westerly wind is blowing force 3 and fog reduces visibility in places to between 50 and 200 metres. British Trent is 177 metres long, Western Winner is 175 metres. Western Winner has no dedicated lookout as she enters the fog.
At 0500, as the British Trent approaches the Wandelaar pilot station, the fog starts to close in to 370 metres, about twice the ship’s length. By 0505 she’s at the pilot station 1.5 miles east of the sw Akkaert bouy, where visibility is between 50 and 100 metres.
The pilot boat is busy serving another vessel which will disembark its pilot at 0515 so the master of the British Trent maintains the ship’s position on a heading of 250.
It is about then that an anonymous blip appears on the VTS-radar and is monitored. It is heading eastwards to the pilotage area at high speed.
It is the Western Winner.
On the bridge of British Trent the second officer is monitoring the ARPA-equipped radar starboard of the chart table on the 12 mile range. The master and pilot are at the second radar on the port side of the wheel position, set to three miles with occasional switches to the six mile range. This radar is fitted with a reflection plotter, a fairly simple device for manually plotting radar targets on a transparent overlay using a chinagraph pencil. It isn’t being used.
Lookouts are positioned on the port and starboard bridge wings but not on the forecastle.
The second officer tells the master and pilot that there are three eastbound ships coming out of the traffic separation scheme west of the southwest Akkaert bouy. One is ahead and to the east of the other two on a course of 089 at 9 knots with a CPA, closest point of approach, of 0.8 miles They acknowledged the information.
That ship’s identity is unknown because it has not reported into the vessel traffic service, Traffic Centre Zeebrugge. It is the Western Winner.
At around 0530, Western Winner’s quartermaster goes to rig the pilot ladder.
At 0531 a containership, Ever Glowing, calls Traffic Centre Zeebrugge to ask about a vessel westbound at 12.27 knots. It is told that there are no westbound vessels but there are two eastbound vessels ahead of her. The smaller of the two vessels is known, Blue Topaz, but the larger vessel is still unknown.
It is the Western Winner.
British Trent’s master calls Ever Glowing and says that he is an outbound vessel waiting to disembark a pilot. Ever Glowing tells him they’ll try to cross the channel ahead of British Trent. The message is acknowledged.
By 0535, when the pilot leaves the bridge, escorted by the second officer, British Trent’s starboard radar shows three targets, one heading south, the other two, abeam of each other, heading east.
As the pilot disembarks at 0537, British Trent’s master starts the fog signal manually, one long blast at intervals of no more than two minutes on the foremast whistle.
The pilot vessel, from which pilot launches are operated, is a fifth of a mile astern of British Trent. The pilot vessel master spots a target on his radar. It is just ahead of British Trent and unidentified.
On British Trent, the second officer returns to the bridge, looks again and immediately alerts the master – there is a vessel closing rapidly fine to port with a CPA of 0.3 miles. Realising the hazard, the master tells the lookout on the bridge to keep a sharp lookout.
The pilot vessel alerts Blue Topaz there that is an unknown vessel about 1.5 miles in front of it. Blue Topaz responds that the unknown vessel has just passed it. The vessel, Western Winner, had passed so close that Blue Topaz had to take avoiding action and turn to starboard to avoid a collision.
The approaching target, Western Winner, is lost in the clutter of the forward radar screen aboard the British Trent.
It is only at 0540, as it is bearing down on British Trent, that Western Winner calls the pilot station on Channel 69 and is identified on traffic centre radar. It is told to contact the pilot boat, just a mile away, on channel 16.
Two minutes later the pilot boat asks Western Winner for its position, there is no response.
The fact is that Western Winner’s master doesn’t know where he is. There’s no functional passage plan, nobody is competently monitoring the radar or the ship’s position. She’s two miles from where the master thinks she is, travelling at 12 knots in a high traffic area through fog so dense her foremast probably can’t be seen from the bridge.
Suddenly, there’s an urgent voice from the VTS: “you’re on the wrong line, you’re on the wrong line”. Nobody on Western Winner’s bridge says anything, there are just gasp of surprise as British Trent appears across their path.
It is too late. The bow of the Western Winner slices into the port side of British Trent, cutting a gash that penetrates her No 3 and 4 cargo tanks, spilling gasoline into the sea. There is a spark and sudden flame near her No.2 cargo tank that follows the Western Winner’s bow as it tears along the side of the tanker. Fingers of fire spread across the water.
The master of the British Trent sends out a Mayday and activates the fire alarm. With the port side, and its lifeboat, engulfed in flame and thick, black, hot smoke the crew musters at the open starboard lifeboat and makes it ready.
Below, engineers evacuate from the engine control room to the engine room itself as thick smoke pours into through the airconditioning. The engine room, too, is filled with smoke and the engineers evacuate that, too. The second engineer pushes the stop buttons for the forward ventilation fans, but smoke still pours in. Coming from his cabin, the chief engineer tries to enter the engine room through the engineers changing room, finding it full of deadly smoker he races to the bridge, closing the fire doors behind him.
Alerted by British Trent’s master, pilot boats stand by ready to evacuate the crew and a helicopter is dispatched from Ostende to assist, but for the time being, the crew of British Trent will stay with the ship. Evacuating the 34 strong compliment down the ship’s side by ladders would have put them in even greater risk.
As the fire rages along the port side of the ship and the accommodation burning, its heat so intense that it crazes the port side forward bridge window, a fire hose is rigged near the starboard lifeboat for protection, but there is too little water in the fire main. The chief engineer and electrician go forward to start the emergency fire pump in the forward pump room. Before they can start the pump, the room fills with smoke and they’re forced to withdraw. The chief engineer goes to the bridge and reports to the master.
On the bridge, a cadet takes the wheel as the master manoeuveres the ship to keep the wind to starboard, blowing the smoke and flames away from her. To do that, the ship has to keep moving, otherwise she cannot steer.
Meanwhile the second and third engineers don self containing breathing apparatus and attempt to re-enter the engineer to start the main fire pump. They can see nothing, the smoke is too dense to see anything. They get just 3 metres before they abandon the attempt.
It was in any case, an attempt doomed to failure. Unknown to those aboard British Trent, the initial impact had disabled the fire main. She was doomed from the moment the fire started.
At 05.57 the master asks the pilot boat to evacuate the three women on board, two wives and a cadet. Led by a third officer the crew rig a pilot ladder over the starboard lifeboat but the ship’s movement drags it aft, it is too dangerous to use. The third officer, a cadet and a seaman go to the starboard after end of the main deck and rig another pilot ladder, this time successfully.
Right now the radio officer is still at his post, briefing British Petroleum’s duty officer in the UK. The smoke fills the radio room. The radio officer closes his station and makes his way to the lifeboat.
At 0603, the three women are taken off of by the pilot boat.
With no means of fighting the fire, and the flames now spreading across the front of the bridge, the master decides to abandon ship and orders all bridge personnel to the lifeboat. Then he stops the engine as the second officer secures vital documents and they leave the bridge.
Without power, British Trent is now at the mercy of wind and current. As the remainder of the crew made their way to the lifeboat embarkation deck the ship begins to turn.
Four catering staff are evacuated into the pilot boat and taken to safety. 27 men remain on board.
A roll-call at the starboard lifeboat confirms that the remaining crew are accounted for and they begin boarding but someone has to stay behind on the burning ship to release the brake and lower their shipmates to the water. That last man leaves either by a ladder down the ship’s side or by climbing down a knotted rope hanging from a wire strung between the two davits. One of the third officers volunteers to go up to the boat deck, two deck above the embarkation deck.
British Trent is now port side to the wind. Suddenly, as the crew is boarding the lifeboat, a pall of thick, toxic smoke and flame engulf them. With no other option to escape the poisonous gases and lung-searing heat, they leap into the sea. The lifeboat catches fire.
Patches of sea are burning and visibility is low, but some crew in the water see glimpses of daylight through the blackness and swim towards it.
Three pilot boats search for survivors. One picks up five people alive, another finds nine alive, three dead, the third finds six survivors and two dead. Six of the survivors, including the master, suffered serious injury from burns and smoke inhalation.
More than an hour later a Dutch navy ship, Kierikzee found two more bodies. Another body was washed up in the Netherlands on 23 June, twenty days after after the incident.
On 3rd July 1993, a month after the tragedy, the last victim’s body was found off the coast of Ostende.
The crew of the British Trent were accounted for: The Radio Officer who had stayed at his post until the last moment, dead. The Third Officer who volunteered to lower the lifeboat, dead. The third officer who had enabled three women aboard reach safety, dead, the electrician who had tried to reach the emergency fire pump, dead, the third engineer, who had tried to reach the main fire pump in the smoke-filled engine room, dead. the chief officer, just 25 years old. dead, three ratings, dead.
It takes several firefighting tugs many hours to extinguish the blaze. British Trent was declared a total loss.
Bermuda asked Britain’s Maritime Accident Investigation Branch to investigate. British Petroleum and the crew of British Trent collaborated fully. Alpha Beta Investments of Monrovia, Liberia, hired lawyers to inhibit the investigation as far as they could, and they succeeded. Investigators were not allowed to view the ship, get information about the ship, or its records or interview the officers or crew of Western Winner, who were secretly flown out of the country.
Western Winner was still owned by Alpha Beta Investments and managed by Fortuna Navigation when it grounded in Australia four years later because the master didn’t have the right charts aboard. As in the collision with British Trent, the master didn’t know where he was.
Belgian authorities were reluctant to assist the investigation, even those who had saved lives, the masters of the Belgian pilot boats were prohibited from talking to investigators, and while criminal charges were brought against the master of Western Winner, Dae Pung Gang, nothing was ever done about them and the case was dropped by the Belgian courts.
No report has ever been made public by the Belgian authorities. Questions were raised in the British Parliament, the Irish Parliament, the Dail, and, after eight years of inaction by Belgium, the European Parliament.
All in all, not a record of which Alpha Beta Investments, Fortuna Navigation or the Belgian government or courts can be very proud.
In fact, the collision between British Trent and Western Winner was an accident waiting to happen. The Traffic Separation Scheme south of the Akkaert Bank was poorly thought through, it put eastbound and westbound traffic into conflict. If an accident can happen, it will, eventually.
Because the Western Winner did not have a functioning passage plan, its officers did not know of, or ignored, the requirement for the vessel to contact VTS by VHF radio 30 minutes before entering its area of responsibility and again when it passed the Kwintebank Bouy. Automatic radio direction finders would have picked up the VHF signal and identified it on the VTS radar. The Western Winner’s officers did not know of, or ignored, the mandatory requirement to report in to the VTS and didn’t use its VHF radio until three minutes before the collision.
Nevertheless, VTS contributed to the disaster by inaction. It did not attempt to contact Western Winner over the nearly half hour it was monitoring it. It did not advise British Trent of the vessel and did not have a sense of the hazard it represented until seconds before the collision.
The pilot vessel, too, did not call Western Winner or the vessel in its path, British Trent.
For reasons unknown, both the VTS and the master of the pilot vessel, lacked situational awareness. There may be valid reasons for these oversights, but Belgian authorities consider them to be a matter of secrecy.
Even so, both ships carried working radars. They should have been aware of each other.
It is self-evident that no proper radar watch was being maintained on Western Winner, and there’s reason to doubt whether those on its bridge were competent to do so. The master believed that vessels to starboard were merely ‘fishing vessels’, and misinterpreted those to port as westbound in the north channel. They did not see Blue Topaz, they not see a large container ship, Ever Glowing that passed a mile ahead and they did not sea British Trent.
It may be that there was a radar blindspot almost right ahead caused by the Western Winner’s deck cranes. Alpha Beta Investments made sure that no-one could find out if this was so and what measures had been put in place to mitigate its effects. If there was such a blindspot, then the officers aboard the Western Winner appear to have been unaware of it or simply incompetent to deal with it.
British Trent also, of course, had radar. While three targets had been acquired, Blue Topaz, Western Winner and another vessel, Hellas, before the disembarkation of the pilot, nobody appears to have continued monitoring them while the second officer left the bridge to accompany the pilot. During his time off the bridge the configuration of the three vessels changed. Nobody was aware of speed and approach of Western Winner. When the second officer returned to the bridge he was not aware of the change in configuration, that Western Winner was now the leading ship.
Had the radars been properly monitored during this period the master of the British Trent could have been alerted earlier to the dangers and taken avoiding action.
So, nobody competent was monitoring radar on Western Winner, and a critical moment, nobody was monitoring the appropriate radar on British Trent.
One other, very familiar ingredient may have been present: fatigue. Although the watch officers on both vessels were well-rested there is evidence that the master of British Trent had been awake since 0630 the previous day and on the bridge since 18.30 the previous day. There is circumstantial evidence to suggest that the master of Western Winner was also fatigued.
Britain’s MAIB comments: “It is not a satisfactory situation that ship’s masters and other seafarers should be either expected, or allowed, to put to sea when they are not fully rested.“ Fatigue remains a common element in such incidents.
Fatigue may have influenced both master’s breaches of collision regulations, colregs.
Under Rule 5, given the conditions, there should have been an adequate, continuous watch by sight, sound and radar. Western Winner had no dedicated lookout and its bridge team was reduced to two while the quartermaster rigged the pilot ladder and the ARPA radar was not used.
On British Trent the radar was no adequately monitored between the second officer leaving the bridge and returning.
Rule 6 requires vessels to proceed at a safe speed. British Trent was proceeding at around 4 knots, the minimum speed at which she could manoeuvre effectively. Western Winner was racing at around 11.5 knots, her maximum rated speed was 15.25 knots.
To put that into context, at that speed, it would have taken around 700 metres to stop Western Winner. Visibility in the area varied between 50 metres and 200 metres. One does not need a degree in maritime studies to realise that is an unsafe speed.
Was the Western Winner’s master under commercial pressure from Alpha Beta Investments, or Fortuna Navigation? Company lawyers made sure nobody would ever know the answer to that question.
Both vessels failed to follow Rule 7 of colregs: determine if risk of collision exists. If there is any doubt then risk shall be deemed to exist.” As well as rule 19. Conduct of Vessels in Restricted Visibility which applies to vessels not in sight of one another when navigating in or near an area of restricted visibility.
It’s now more than 15 years since the British Trent tragedy. In its wake, a special protective drench system was devised to protect open lifeboats in similar circumstances but you probably won’t find open lifeboats on such a vessel today. What hasn’t changed is the influence of fatigue, poor watchkeeping and breach of collision regulations, all of which are still with us and that is what makes that tragedy as relevant today as it was in 1993.
In conditions of restricted visibility, keep a continuous watch. That means if you have to leave the radar even for a couple or so minutes make sure someone’s there to take over from you and knows what they’re looking at. Ensure there’s a proper lookout with his ears open. Don’t assume that other vessels can see you unless you know for sure they’ve seen you. Don’t assume they are going to follow colregs just because you do.
Yet there is another issue. The master of the Western Winner, Dae Pung Gang, was not competent. These days throwing seafarers in prison, even when they are not on trial, has become an enthusiasm for jurisdictions around the world looking for a cheap way of making money, and for carpet bagging lawyers on the make, from the US to South Korea.
Should Captain Dae Pung Gang have been arrested and tried on criminal charges for the deaths of those aboard British Trent? Or does liability rest with those who knowingly put him in charge of a ship without finding out whether or not he was fit to command it? You must decide for yourself the answer to that question.
Today, little remains of British Trent. The charred hulk was sold and broken up for scrap. All that’s left are the memories of those who lost loved ones, and the bell in the mariner’s chapel of All Hallows By The Tower, on Tower Hill, London.
This is Bob Couttie wishing you safe sailing.