My attention has been drawn to the Hoegh Osaka incident by an article in the Nautical Institute magazine Seaways by Dr Nippin Anand, of which more in my monthly newsletter. And it has caused me to look into the whole business of car carrying and this incident in particular. I had not realised what a vast business the carriage of cars from one country to another is. Southampton alone exports 850,000 units a year. Royal Portbury Dock can host six car carriers at the same time, and Sheerness imports about 400,000 Volkswagens a year; additionally there are lesser facilities at both Liverpool and Grimsby.

If you see one of these unusual craft you can’t help thinking that they are a design beyond the bounds of normal seaworthiness, great big slab sided things which, even fully loaded, tower over the surroundings and are topped by a bit of a bridge and a little strip of accommodation. This impression is born out by some of the misfortunes that have occurred to them. One that comes to mind is the loss of the Tricolor in 2002 which sank in the English Channel after a collision with the cargo ship Kariba. The Tricolor sank almost immediately, lying on it’s side on the seabed, becoming to all intents and purposes a reef, and with a couple of days a small bulk carrier, the Nicola, ran aground on it. So the seas are full of vessels full of cars and commercial vehicles, plying the routes between Europe, the Middle East and the Far East. Hoegh Autoliners itself operates 60 PCTCs and another major carrier EUKOR operates 90 ships. This is a symptom of the modern industrial requirement to built cars where it is cheap to do so, and then transport them to somewhere else. Obviously the cost of marine transport hardly figures in the calculations of the manufacturers.

So let’s move on to the Hoegh Osaka , The ship was registered in Singapore, was owned by Hoegh Autoliners Shipping Pte and was designated as a PCTC (a Pure Car and Truck Carrier). It was built in 2000 as Maersk Wind and renamed in 2009. It had a service speed of 19.2 knots (wow!). The ship had 12 vehicle decks, No 1 being the bottom-most and No 12 the topmost. And decks 4, 6 and 8 were strengthened for the carriage of heavy vehicles. It was also provided with its own machines for altering the heights of the some of the decks. Loading and discharge would take place via  a stern ramp on the starboard quarter and a side ramp on the starboard side. Both provided access to Deck 6 assigned as the main deck, and from there the vehicles were driven up or down internal ramps. There were 15 ballast tanks and the ballast system could be operated from the control centre. The system had a capacity of 7707 tonnes, and the ship could be kept level by transferring ballast between No 3 port and starboard. Each of the ballast tanks was provided with a gauge in the control centre, however only one of them was working. The rest had been inoperative since July 2014 when Wallem took over the management, and had been deemed as unimportant because soundings could be taken manually. In fact the Wallem SMS required that tank contents should be recorded daily in the chief officer’s ballast log. The last time the soundings had been taken was in December 2014, so the figures were estimated.

The Hoegh Osaka was managed by Wallem Ship Management, and had a crew of 24 made up of  22 Indians, one Sri Lankan  and one Ukrainian. Both the master and chief officer were Indian nationals with extensive experience of car carriers. The company employed a port captain who arranged for the European loadings and who had essentially same responsibility as the chief officer for the cargo, but not for the ship, and in addition was required by the Hoegh SMS to hold a number of meetings with the stevedore supervisors and the ship’s staff.

The ship was on a regular run between north Europe and the Middle East, calling in Europe at Hamburg, Bremerhaven and Southampton in that order, with approximately 2000 tonnes of bunkers to be taken in Germany on this voyage. Also there were reserve vehicles held in Southampton to be loaded if there was space left once the booked cargo had been completed. On 19th December the master was told that the loading order had been changed and that the first port was to be Southampton, apparently a commercial advantage before year end.

The vessel arrived in Southampton on January 2nd with 200 Hyundais on Decks 1 and 2 and 21 units of heavy cargo on Deck 6, and the intention was that 1306 units would be loaded, weighing a total of 4008.9 tonnes. However in addition to the planned units of which the chief officer had been advised, a further 50 cars and 62 commercial units weighing 616.7 tonnes would be loaded, which none of the on board management knew about. In addition due to incorrect estimates of the weights of the Land Rover derivatives, the upper decks contained about 354 tonnes more than tabulated. In the end the ship sailed with decks 10,11, and 12 full with 1250 cars and 164 commercial units on decks 4, 6 and 8.

At 1750 on 3rd January the ship had been loaded and the cargo secured, and the departure draught was recorded as 8.4m forward and 9.0m aft, although actually the figures were the other way round. At 1930 when the pilot had boarded through the stern door, the stern ramp was raised and the ship took on a list of about 7 degrees, much more than the usual 1 or 2 degrees. The chief officer went to the ballast control and transferred ballast to bring the ship upright.  

At 2006 the ropes were let go and once the tugs had been released ship started off down the river. At 2025 the chief officer and the deck cadet were in the control centre calculating the departure stability, shortly afterwards being telephoned by the captain who said that the ship ‘did not feel right’.

At 2102, after the ship had successfully made the Calshot turn at 10 knots the pilot requested an increase in speed. Meanwhile the chief officer had instructed the deck cadet to go and sound the after peak tanks, anticipating that he would have to add ballast to them since the GM seemed to be less than he had previously calculated.

At 2107 the port turn around the West Bramble buoy commenced and the ship began to list to starboard. Despite an instruction for hard astarboard from the pilot, the heel continued until the rudder and propeller were out of the water. Some of the heavier cargo units on Deck 6 broke free and one holed the hull allowing water ingress and the heel continued. At 2115 the ship grounded on the Bramble Bank with a list of 40 degrees. One crewmember broke an arm and a leg and others suffered cuts and bruises. And by 0015 everyone except for the master the chief officer and the pilot had been successfully evacuated. The three remaining personnel were evacuated at 0215.

We are provided with the opportunity to look at what happened by the report into the accident by the UK Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) which was published in March 2016. And as usual the report found much wrong with the manner in which the ship was operated.

The chief officer had advised the master that the departure GM was 1.46m and therefore met the stability criteria for the vessel. However his estimate was based on incorrect weights of the vehicles on decks 10, 11 and 12 which had been seriously underestimated, and on incorrect and overestimated values for the ballast total and the possible free surface. The investigators felt that the fact that the chief officer was still calculating the stability as the ship was on its way down Southampton Water emphasised the situation. But going further back into the incident, closer to the root causes (we might think) even though the loading of the ship had been  changed, the port captain had not changed the location of the cars to be loaded in Southampton. Nor had anyone considered the reduction in stability resulting from the delay in loading the bunkers. It was, according to the report, normal for the port captain to produce the plans and supervise the loading of the cargo without involving the chief officer in the process, and even though there was an instruction to carry out a ‘ramp meeting’ just before the commencement of loading, the chief officer had not attended.  Nor did the chief officer hold meetings with his staff, about the forthcoming loading despite the instructions in the ship’s formal documentation for one to take place.

Possibly because the ballast quantities were based entirely in the chief officer’s estimates, since the gauges were not operational, it had become normal practice to adjust the theoretical ballast quantities to suit the departure draughts. It was thought that the system contained 5328 tonnes with eight of the tanks full, but this was an overestimate of 635 tonnes. The  Loadstar computer with which the ship was equipped made it possible for the VCG of the cargo to be entered, but it was always left at the default position which was deck level. Two of the 213 tick boxes in the checklists contained references to stability and both had been ticked by the chief officer on the day of departure. 

There were extensive instructions in the various formal documents about the lashing of cargo, and it was determined that probably shifting cargo had little to do with the accident, but some of the heavy vehicles moved and this was attributed to the use of 5000kg MSL (maximum securing load) webbing straps instead of the required 10,000kg MSL straps for vehicles weighing more than 15 tonnes.  Ten buses on Deck 8 had all shifted, possible because there were no securing points on them and hence the lashing guys had had to use the wheels. Tracked units were required to be placed on rubber mats, and this had been successfully carried out but one tracked bulldozer had shifted on Deck 6 and had holed the hull in way of the gangway access.   

The investigation referenced the following documents:

The ISM Code Document of Compliance

The Hoegh Osaka’s ISM Code Safety Management Certificate

The Wallem Shipboard Management Manual Part 1

The Wallem Shipboard Management Manual Part 2

The PCC/PCTC Operations Manual

The Hoegh Autoliners Cargo Quality Manual based on the following:

SOLAS chapter VI and VII

Code of Safe Practice for the Cargo Stowage and Securing

2010 amendments to the CSS code. (Neither the port captain or the stevedore’s lashing supervisors had   access or knowledge of the Hoegh Osaka CSM.)

The UK Merchant Shipping (Carriage of Cargoes) Regulations 1999.

The MCA Roll-on/Roll-off Ships – Stowage and Securing of vehicles – Code of Practice.

 There were checklists in the PCC/PCTC Operations Manual as follows;

      Checklist No 1. Prior loading / during loading

      Checklist No 2. Prior discharging / during discharging

      Checklist No 3. Prior departure port.

      Checklist No 4.  Loaded passage.

      Checklist No. 5. During loading / discharging.

The MAIB found many failings in the manner in which the ship had been operated, and some in relation to the operation of all car carriers. Probably the most important lesson to be learnt might be the following:

Witness and anecdotal evidence suggests that the practice of not calculating the actual stability condition on completion of cargo operations but before the ship sails extends to the PCC/PCTC sector in general. For reasons of efficiency, what is a fundamental principle of seamanship appears to have been allowed to drift, giving rise to potential unsafe practices.

There were numerous actions taken by the various entities involved, at the bottom of a fairly extensive list, Associated British Ports requiring their pilots to ask the shipmasters to confirm their stability and that the vessel is in all respects ready to proceed to sea. But let’s face it, it is all after the horse has bolted. This obviously does not reflect on the MAIB but what about a management company who do not realize that it takes ages to sound tanks manually, and they probably did not have the manpower to sound round daily in order to complete the chief officer’s ballast log. And let’s face it there was a good reason for the ship being provided with remote tank contents readouts.

In addition to anything else done the report makes a number of recommendations, most of which would be obvious to anyone who has read the report, or even this summary, but a couple of the really important one’s, in the view of the writer are addressed to Wallem Ship Management and are:

  • Clear guidance is given to its masters and chief officers as to what actions should be taken prior to the ship's departure if, after checking, there remains a significant difference between a ship's calculated displacement and that obtained from actual draught readings.
  •  Checklists are revised and rationalised so that they can be used effectively, and that safety critical items are not lost among a large number of minor tasks.

People wedded to modern safety buzzwords would say now “Well that’s a management of change” problem, the change being the alteration to the ship’s itinerary. And actually we do not know whether the port captain had just failed to consider the change, or whether there were reasons for the LandRover type vehicles being loaded into the uppermost decks, and hence he was relying on the chief officer to adjust the ballast to suit – which actually he could have done. However old seafarers would say that being aware of the status of the ship’s stability is just part of the ordinary practice of good seamanship. 

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