Delaying making permanent repairs to the 40-year old oceanographic vessel Seaprobe, failing to comply with his vessel’s safety management system nor complying with mandatory load limits proved to be a poor decision by the ship’s owner. Fortunately no-one died but one crewmember was seriously injured, two lightlyinjured and the vessel was lost.
Built in 1974 and owned by Fugro-McClelland of Galveston, Texas, according to the Equasis database, US flagged and in class with the American Bureau of Shipping, the 818 tonne Seaprobe was a converted fishing vessel originally named Northern Empire. It was one of two geotechnical drillships operated by Fugro-McClelland in the Gulf of Mexico.
The US National Transportation Safety board adds: “Contributing to the accident was the owner’s failure to comply with the vessel’s safety management system and mandatory load line regulations”.
In a Jones Act law suite it is alleged that “despite the years of notice, Fugro continually failed to properly maintain the vessel which subsequently led to the eventual sinking”. Fugro’s recruitment advertisements say “Fugro has a strong commitment to health, safety and the environment. ”
One may bear those statements in mind while reading the last days of the Seaprobe:
In late December 2012, the Seaprobe departed its oceanographic research operations off the coast of South America, en route to Morgan City, Louisiana. While in transit, the captain and crew noted seawater entering the engine room where the exhaust pipe for the starboard main engine exited through the engine room overhead.
The captain told investigators that he maneuvered the vessel to minimize water on the deck in the area of the water entry. Also, the crew made temporary repairs including fastening thin sheets of metal to the starboard-side exhaust trunk where the original metal was wasted. The exhaust trunk housed exhaust pipes from machinery in the engine room and ran forward horizontally above the deck to the stack, just aft of the deckhouse. To address the flooding, Saprobe diverted the Seaprobe to the Gulf Marine Repair (GMR) shipyard in Tampa, Florida.
On 4vanuary, 2013, the Seaprobe arrived at the GMR shipyard, where the vessel underwent temporary repairs. After the accident, the uS Coast Guard learned that shipyard personnel used doubler plates to temporarily repair the starboard main engine and generator exhaust pipes housed within the exhaust trunk. Portions of the exhaust trunk’s bottom plate were not renewed after this plate, some of its metal wasted, was removed to gain access to damaged sections of the exhaust pipes within the exhaust trunk.
The port engineer―a representative of the vessel owner who was at the GMR shipyard during the repair work―told investigators that he did not direct shipyard personnel to replace the bottom plate because he wanted to allow for further examination of the exhaust pipes during the vessel’s next scheduled drydock.
Shipyard personnel had asked the port engineer if he wanted the exhaust trunk repaired or left open, and, if the latter, the personnel would install a doubler plate over the six starboard-side freeing ports near the bottomless exhaust trunk to protect it from seawater. The port engineer believed, as an interim measure, “if the freeing ports were closed it would improve protection against seawater contact in that area.”
Shipyard personnel installed the doubler plate over the six freeing ports and left the exhaust trunk open to the atmosphere on the bottom.
An accident was now waiting to happen.
Seaprobe left Tampa about 1400 on 16 January, 2013, and continued toward Morgan City. Based on vessel draft estimates provided by the captain, the freeboard near the deck over the engine room measured 0.3 metres to 1 metre.
During the west-northwest transit toward Morgan City on the evening of 17 January, the Seaprobe experienced north winds at 26 knots, with gusts up to 34 knots, and seas of five metres. The high seas and the fact that six of the Seaprobe’s freeing ports were closed caused seawater to collect on deck. This water made its way into the open bottom of the exhaust trunk and downflooded into the engine room.
Seaprobe lost power to its main engines and generators about 2000 that evening. The chief engineer discovered water in the engine fuel and in the starboard-side day tank. He also saw water entering the engine space near the exhaust trunk. Initially he kept up with the flooding by using the oily water separator to pump the water to a holding tank.
About 2030, the chief engineer restored the portside generator and about 2130 brought the portside main engine back online. However, over the next few hours, he noted that the flooding increased and used the bilge pumps to remove the incoming water. One of the deckhands also saw the engine room flooding and told investigators that every time the Seaprobe rolled in the high seas, a large amount of water entered the engine room on the starboard side.
About 0200 the next morning, 18 January, with the Seaprobe listing to starboard and upto metre of water in the engine room, the chief engineer and the captain determined that the bilge pumps could not keep up with the flooding. They then shut the engine room’s watertight doors to prevent progressive flooding of adjacent areas. Shortlylater, they contacted the US Coast Guard.
Two liferafts were launched, the twelve crew boarded hem and were rescued by two USCG helicopters.
About 1800 that evening, the owner reported to the Coast Guard that the aircraft could not locate the vessel. The Seaprobe is presumed to have sunk sometime around 0315 on 18 January.
Although the Seaprobe was not required to undergo US Coast Guard inspection, two other safety strategies were in place: a load line certificate and a safety management system. Says the NTSB: “Because the vessel owner did not adhere to these strategies, they did not prevent the sinking”.
The Load Line Certificate
The American Bureau of Shipping (ABS) issued an international load line certificate for Seaprobe on 29 March, 2012. Under the load line regulations in 46 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Part 42, the operators of the vessel should have told ABS before they installed doubler plates over the freeing ports and departed port without repairing the bottom of the exhaust trunk. Having a load line is contingent on weathertight integrity of the vessel above the freeboard deck. Blocking the drainage of water from the deck and operating at sea with openings to the engine room were changes to the conditions of the vessel requiring ABS to revisit the vessel and reassess the load line assignment. ABS, after examining the condition of the vessel and the operator’s proposal for permanent repairs, would have decided whether to allow the vessel to depart Tampa in the condition that it was.
CFR 42.07-55 (b) states that load line certificates may be canceled due to conditions such as closed freeing ports and wasted exhaust trunks. requiring ABS to revisit the vessel and reassess the load line assignment. ABS, after examining the condition of the vessel and the operator’s proposal for permanent repairs, would have decided whether to allow the vessel to depart Tampa in the condition that it was. CFR 42.07-55 (b) states that load line certificates may be canceled due to conditions such as closed freeing ports and wasted exhaust trunks.
These mandatory measures were not adhered to.
Seaprobe’s owner owner held a valid International Safety Management Code Document of Compliance and Safety Management Certificate issued by ABS. One of the four objectives of a safety management system is to ensure compliance with the mandatory rules and regulations when developing procedures for the safety management system.
The safety management system requires documents for vessel maintenance procedures, which are used to verify that all company vessels are maintained in conformity with relevant rules and regulations. Seaprobe owner’s failure to discuss the wasted exhaust trunk and closing of the freeing ports with ABS meets the definition of nonconformity under the safety management system.
In its report the US NTSB concludes that the probable cause of the flooding and subsequent sinking of the Seaprobe was the decision of the vessel owner to delay making permanent repairs to the starboard-side exhaust trunk and covering six of the vessel’s freeing ports, leaving the Seaprobe susceptible to downflooding from boarding seas.
Contributing to the accident was the owner’s failure to comply with the vessel’s safety management system and mandatory load line regulations.
Seaprobe was subject to regulations found in 46 Code of Federal Regulations Part 3, which require the vessel owner to verify in writing every 2 years that the vessel operates as an oceanographic research vessel and is therefore not subject to inspection as a passenger, freight, or offshore supply vessel. An oceanographic research vessel of less than 300 gross tons does not require inspection.
As is all too often the case teh drive to minimise costs and maximise profits put seafarer’s lives on the line.