The Clipper Point in Heysham

There follows a quotation from the MAIB report, published in June 2012 into a accident involving the Clipper Point and the port of Heysham in May 2011

“While the master’s responsibility for the safety of the vessel, his passengers and crew is absolute, he can not operate alone. Vessel operators and port authorities have similar, if less clearly defined, responsibilities for equipping the master with the tools, rules and infrastructure that are needed for him to be able to operate safely.”

I think this is a statement, which should be understood by employers and port operators, as well as shipmasters, who believe that they have to take risks to fulfil the commercial requirements imposed on their vessels.

It came about due to an accident to the Clipper Point in May 2011 when the vessel entered the port of Heysham in high winds and while attempting a turn to port to back up to the linkspan hit a ship and the quayside, and holed its steering gear compartment. There were no injuries. The fact that the accident occurred in Heysham, a British port, resulted in the investigation despite the fact that the ship is register in Limassol.

The Clipper Point is a large modern cargo ferry running between Heysham on the west coast of UK and Warrenpoint on the east coast of Northern Ireland. The port of Heysham is a small facility with an extremely large tidal range, and just room in the main part of the harbour for a ferry to turn through 180 degrees and back up to the linkspan in the easterly end.

The report describes in detail the control stations on the ship, one positioned in the centre of the pilot house, and another on each of the bridge wings, although they are not outside of course. The central control station is provided with pitch controls for both propellers, controls for the high lift rudders and also for the bow thrusters, however the readouts on the bridge wings were more limited than those on the centre console. Additionally to change from one control station to another all the controls had to be in the same position, otherwise the transfer could not take place.

I have written at length about the activities of offshore vessels and the making or not of a close approach, and of course if they choose not to make the approach they are still on location, but ferries are different. At the end of each voyage they must enter harbour and manoeuvre into a position where they can unload and load again, and at that time the master has to make a decision as to whether the task can be accomplished without damage to their vessel or injury to the personnel.

Under ideal conditions there is room in Heysham harbour for a ferry to enter, to make the turn and then to back up to the linkspan, but there have been a number of minor incidents, and complaints had been made by May of 2011 about the practice of berthing general cargo ships on the south quay, thereby restricting the space left in the harbour for the ferries to swing. After one such complaint when a master had said that the stern of his vessel had passed within three metres of one of the ships berthed on the south quay, the harbour master had viewed a related video and pronounced that in fact the distance was at least 9 metres.

There was also much concern over wind speeds and constant disagreements between the harbour and the owners of the Clipper Point, Seatruck, as to the windspeed in the harbour. This led to the shipowners installing their own anemometer at the entrance. The company had also provided guidance to its masters which suggested that entry into the harbour should be delayed if the wind speed exceeding 29knots, but routinely masters failed to follow this advice. Even though they were aware the company did nothing. At this windspeed the force on the hull of the Clipper Point exceeded 34 tonnes. The harbour had carried out a risk assessment and their risk register cited two sets of guidance neither of which had been written, and the availability of a tug, the Sea Trojan, built in 1964 with a bollard pull of 14 tonnes, and for sale at the time.

On the morning of the accident the master of the Clipper Point decided to enter, despite the fact that the windspeed was between 27 and 34 knots, there were two ships berthed on the south quay and one of the ship’s bowthrusters was out of service – as it had been for seven months. Yes, it was a poor decision, but as the MAIB point out, he was not getting any help.

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