The Case Of The Seductive Sim


Ancient mariners feared the seductive call
of the siren would wreck their ships,
this modern mariner was seduced by call of the SIM

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MasterSecond Officer

The Master and the Second Officer

We’ll call him Stan, not his real name but he was a real person. He was Ukrainian, 27 years old and now a second officer, although he was qualified as a chief officer, on the containership Berit in January 2006. He had three key qualities for a young officer, during the six months he’s been on the ship, having joined it in June 2005 as a third officer – he’d been keen, eager to learn and reliable. He was probably feeling pretty good about himself right then. His contract had been due to expire the previous December but, to the master, his qualities as an officer made him a keeper. He’d also been the ship’s safety officer.

The Master, we’ll call him Wolf, was a 59 year old German with plenty of seatime under his belt and had been a Master for 23 years. He knew the Berit particularly well, he’d brought her into service in 2001. He also knew the shipowner, in fact he’d been to nautical college with him.

Perhaps because his own retirement hovered on the horizon, Wolf kept an eye out for talented young officers and his experienced eye settled on Stan. As Winter drew on, a vacancy for second officer opened and Wolf wanted someone familiar with the Baltic and the Berit, someone much like young Stan. So it was that, on Wolf’s recommendation, Stan wore another shiny new stripe on his shoulder that January.

The Ship

The Berit
The Berit in drydock

The Berit was a 125.08 metres length over all hatchless containership of 9,981 gross tonnes built in Hamburg four years before. She was driven by a single controllable pitch propeller. Her regular route takes her between St. Petersburg, Hamburg and Rotterdam through the Kiel Canal.

We’ve been to the Kiel Canal before in this series in The Case Of The Cozy Captain.

Berit Bridge, looking to starboard

On the bridge of the Berit were two chairs in front of radars, one with an ARPA capability, and a Transas electronic chart display which was fed by one of two GPS receivers. Although the ECS alarms weren’t enabled the GPS would sound a brief, quiet alarm when approaching a waypoint.

The Berit ECS system

Integrated with the autopilot was a watch alarm to make sure someone was awake on the bridge and paying attention. When used, this alarm was activated by a removable key which was kept by the master when he left the bridge and re-inserted when he returned. At least, that was the idea.

The non-operating Bridge Watch Alarm

The alarm triggered a flashing light after twelve minutes. If it wasn’t cancelled, an audible alarm sounded on the bridge. If it still wasn’t cancelled, alarms sounded in the officers’ cabins and if that didn’t work, it sounded the general alarm. It was a well thought-out chain of actions that might have saved Stan’s bacon, as it was designed to do. But there was one weak link in the chain and it’s name was Wolf.

The Berit had been transferred from the Antigua and Barbuda registry to the UK registry in 2005. Previously, International Safety Management audits were carried out by the ship’s classification society, Germanischer Lloyd on behalf of the Antigua and Barbuda registry, with the change in registry the UK’s Maritime and Coastguard Agency carried out an independent audit in December 2005.

Four issues were raised by the MCA in what are referred to as Non-Conformity notes or NCNs. A key issue for our story was that lookouts often weren’t posted at night. Neither the master nor the shipowner was aware of the problem until the MCA audit.

These issues were in the process of being formally closed when Stan was in St. Petersburg loading his cellphone with money.

The Voyage

On the morning of 2nd January the Berit docks in St. Petersburg and starts to unload. Stan goes ashore for a couple of hours and while there he tops up the credits on his cellphone. He has a collection of SIM cards covering various areas along the vessel’s route and pops whichever is the appropriate one into his cellphone.

At 1000 the next day, January 3, the Berit sets sail with the officers on a four hour on, eight hour off watchkeeping cycle. Stan stands the midnight to 0400 and 1200 to 1600 watches.

The passage is uneventful, the officers cycle through their watches as the Berit makes its way towards the Kiel Canal; and Rotterdam.

At 23.55 on January 4 Stan arrives on the bridge, his lookout, a Filipino, is already there talking the third officer, who is also a Filipino. There’s a brief handover with the third officer and at midnight Stan takes the watch. He’s done this 13 times before as second officer. When he was third officer, Wolff kept a watch on him.

It isn’t a very exciting night. A force 4 breeze comes from nor-nor-east with a sea state 3 and visibility is around 10 nautical miles. Stan sees just one vessel in the vicinity and that’s 10 nautical miles ahead and sailing in the same direction.

Half an hour he started his watch, the Berit is approaching bouy DW78, which marks Deep Water Route T, with the Darss Peninsular directly to the south. It’s so quiet that Stan tells the lookout to stand-by in the crew mess.

The lookout thinks he’s been told he can go and rest so he eats, goes to his cabin and by 0100 he’s asleep.

Stan is now a single watchkeeper. It was just the situation that had worried the MCA less than a month before.

Exactly what happened over the next hour and fifteen minutes, especially the last 40 minutes is uncertain. Stan doesn’t seem to have been fatigued, and it’s unlikely that he feel asleep. If he’d kept the lookout on the bridge we’d know for sure, but if he’d done that, I probably wouldn’t be telling you this story now.

The best guess scenario, based on accident reports, goes something like this:

As Berit passes the next bouy, DW76, Stan hears a familiar language over the VHF radio. There are other Ukrainian seafarers in the vicinity. After their conversation finishes he asks for news from home for a couple of minutes or so.

Extract from the Transas ECS aboard the Berit showing route from DW74

Cellphones work on a network of fairly short range land-based antennae so reception at sea is patchy. After Stan finishes on the VHF his cellphone bursts into life as it gets within range of a cellphone antennae and a couple of text messages arrive and he answers them.

There’s little to do on the bridge. Positions are not plotted on the paper chart and when positions are noted in the log book every couple of hours or after a course change, they’re taken from the GPS, so Stan isn’t using alternative means of fixing the ship’s position.

The signal is still weak so he goes out on the starboard bridge wing to get better reception and starts texting. Still, reception isn’t very good so he decides to try out the port bridge wing.

As he passes the central console he glances at the electronic chart display. There’s still a way to go before the next course alteration at bouy DW74 which will take the Berit into the Kadeterendan traffic separation scheme.

On the port bridge wing he continues his texting. He’s so absorbed by his texting that the next 40 minutes passes quickly. Just how quickly, he doesn’t realise until 0147 when the ship starts vibrating.

Heavy vibration is usually a pretty ominous sign on a ship, in this case it meant he’d run out of the wet stuff. Stan rushes to the centre console and speed over ground is zero. It’s zero because the Berit is aground on the Trindelen Bank, Denmark with a chunk out of its propeller and two holes in its hull.

Berit Chart
Chart of the Berit’s movements to the grounding

I’ll talk about cellphones in a while, for now, if you haven’t already done so, look up the Case of the Cozy Captain because there are many similarities with the case of the Berit. You might also check out the UK Maritime Accident Investigation Board’s report on bridge watchkeeping, the link is on our website.

If you do that, you may come to the conclusion that single watchkeeping is a really, really bad idea.

True there are studies that suggest that single watching is safe – provided that the bridge is specially designed for it, provided that the watch-keeping system has an armour-clad guarantee that the watchkeeper is alert throughout his watch, provided that he, or she, will never be distracted and provided that he or she is never, ever fatigued.

So, back to the world the rest of us live in. To stand-down the lookout when you’re otherwise on the bridge alone at night is about as sensible as disconnecting the brakes on your car.

Not only that, it’s against collision regulations, the SOLAS convention and common sense.

Stan was eager to learn, but he was learning the wrong habits. It appears the junior officers had got into the bad habit of standing down their lookouts. Hours of rest records showed that 18 night time watches were carried out the previous November without a lookout.

Things seem to improve after December 11 when the Master made an addition to the sea orders book emphasising the need for a lookout in times of darkness but old habits die hard and according to the ship’s records no-one had been lookout on the 0400 to 0800 watch since Christmas Day. As it happens, the records showed that a lookout was working on the night of the incident, even though he wasn’t on the bridge.

So, if you haven’t got a lookout at night, lookout.

The electronic chart system on the Berit just displayed charts on a screen. It didn’t have the bells and whistles of a full ECDIS system. No depth, cross-track error or waypoint alarms or alerts were set and there no instructions on how to set them, so the primary means of navigation was the paper chart, which nobody was marking very often, and because they weren’t doing that, and didn’t use alternative methods of position fixing, didn’t calculate speed and distance, they didn’t have a sense of where the ship was, in the jargon, their situational awareness was severely reduced.

All this is poor navigational practice. But it also left him with little to do and an idle mind is the devil’s playground.

Plotting positions and using alternative position fixing methods can help keep your mind more alert and aware. Do you know how to use the electronic navigation tools on your bridge to their best advantage? If not, now is probably a good time to find out.

Stan was so under-stimulated that when he started getting texts, they got his full attention.

But what about the watch alarm I hear you say, the dog that didn’t bark in the night? Over those 40 minutes why didn’t lights flash, the bridge alarm sound, the alarm in the officers’ cabins, the general alarm? It seems that Wolf left the key to the watch alarm still inserted when he left the bridge and someone deactivated it. Wolf had been the weak link in the chain.

That alarm could have saved the ship and Stan’s bacon. Next time you’re standing watch, check out the bridge watch alarm

This wasn’t the first, and won’t be the last incident to feature a cellphone. They’re great gadgets but a ship’s bridge at night is probably not the best place for them. Wolf knew that Stan and the other officers were using cellphones but he didn’t control their use, he believed it might interfere with their personal rights.

When you’re making a normal telephone call you cn at least keep an eye on what’s going on around you but when texting and playing games the cellphone screen can become almost hypnotic and the back-light probably isn’t going to help your night-vision. So, really, they’re best left in your cabin. Otherwise you might get seduced by a sim card.

This is Bob Couttie wishing you safe sailing.

Official MAIB Report

MAIB Watchkeeping Safety Study