This edition of the Ships and Oil Newsletter a number of summaries of accident reports including the Maersk S Class under tow, the USS J.McCain accident, the Maria and the Angel Arcella in Malta plus my own experiences on a big Mediterranean ferry and a bit about the sale of the Malaviya Seven.

The photograph is of the Maersk S Class under tow from the Investigation report.


The Maersk S Class destroying each other. Photo from the Investigation report.

Many of us will remember the sinking of two of the Maersk S Class vessels back in December 2016 while under tow of one of the B class, all of them on their way to Turkey to be recycled. Well, the Danish marine authorities have just completed their investigation into the accident and their report was released on 30th August. It contains fascinating information and a number of terrific photos, and I will be including a fuller report on my website some time in the next month. You could say that the accident occurred due to the requirement of the company that they save money, or that there were no handover procedures in place when people were sacked, or that those who were arranging for the tow to take place after the sackings did not have the appropriate skills for the task, or that there was insufficient oversight of the job, or that there was insufficient risk assessment undertaken, or that the risk assessment did not appropriately determine the level of risk, or actually ensure that mitigation of some of the risk took place or that there were unacceptable communication difficulties between the management and the towing vessel, or that the survey process undertaken prior to the departure was not understood by the management of the company or all of the above. And for me I just could not imagine two anchor-handlers tied up next to each other out in a seaway, not seriously damaging each other. There is a tradition that the master of the towing vessel has at least some responsibility for the object under tow if it is unmanned if only to ensure the safety of his own vessel, so I can’t help wondering what the captain of the Maersk Battler was thinking, particularly since the voyage was to be undertaken in winter and involved a transit across the Bay of Biscay. If I was writing a sequel to ”A Catalogue of Disasters” it would be included, but more on this story later!


How much is a middle-aged UT 745 worth? According to an investigation carried out by STV (Scottish TV) the scrap value is about £670,000 and the second hand value might be £850,000. The reason for STV looking into this is due to the fact that the Malaviya Seven which has been languishing alongside in Aberdeen harbour for the last year, is to be sold in order to recover the wages owing to the crew which now in total amount to £670,000 or as we can see, the scrap value of the ship. But also in the queue for payment are the Aberdeen Harbour Commissioners who are owed £100,000 in berthing fees, and according to the investigators, the harbour board might come ahead of the crew in the order of importance for payment. Probably the money recovered after expenses have been paid is distributed to the creditors in proportion to the size of the debt. If this is the case then obviously the harbour board would come first, since the individual debts due to each crew member will be much less than that due to the harbour. The eleven seafarers left on board have been supported by local charities and back home in India their families are suffering from privation, none of this being their fault. The Harbour Board have issued a statement saying that it would be inappropriate for them to comment on matters of “commercial confidentiality”, but perhaps they should consider the relative social costs of them getting the money or the crew getting it, and I doubt that the harbour will go broke if they are prepared to forego their fees.


The hole in the USS J McCain. Photo in the media.

It seems that only the other day we were reading about the collision between the USS Fitzgerald and the ACX Crystal and yet here’s another. Yet again the bulbous bow of a merchant ship has penetrated the hull of a naval ship resulting in casualties. In the previous collision the bow of the merchant ship penetrated the upper works of the naval ship, apparently disabling its communications system in total. Blimey! We might think, does no-one think of the possibility of  a single point failure, or what the result of a collision might be? The result of both collisions has been considerable loss of life, and incidentally one cannot imagine how bad the people who were on the bridges of all these vessel must be feeling, even if they are subsequent ally to be found entirely innocent of any involvement, other than being there. As is the way with such events involving naval vessels, people will be disciplined in some way, apparently including the admiral in charge of the Far Eastern fleet, but if contributors to the gCaptain website are to be believed there is a lot more to it than just sacking people and hoping for the best. The American Navy have also initiated an investigation into why these events are occurring, and it is quite difficult to believe that ships provided with the means of identifying approaching aircraft over the horizon don’t seem to be able to avoid colliding with merchant ships. Apart from anything else could it be that everyone is becoming over reliant on technology. On my first watch as Third Mate I was due to transit the English Channel, and as the Mate was handing over to me he said, “a bit of advice – don’t look though the binoculars”.



The Excellent alongside in Genoa. Photo Victor Gibson

Many of us at some time in our lives have travelled on one of the small ferries which provide much of the infrastructure between Piraeus and the Greek islands, and between the islands themselves. Their standard mode of operation when they arrive at one of the small island ports is to drop an anchor, swing stern to the quay and back up, lowering the stern ramp when they get close enough, and sometimes not even bothering to put a rope ashore while cars and foot passengers leave and join. I have travelled on a ferry across the Mekong which used a similar process, but did not bother with the anchor and on a ferry between Britain and the continent of Europe, which required an elaborate linkspan to deal with the Atlantic tidal range. But none of these voyages prepared me for a trip on a 40,000 grt international Mediterranean ferry.

 As part of my summer hols my wife and I travelled on a ferry from Barcelona to Genoa and after a short stay in Tuscany, back from Genoa to Barcelona. The ferry MV Excellent operated by the Italian company Grandi Navi Veloci (GNV) was vast and on the trip from Genoa was due to visit Barcelona and then, importantly, Tangier. The departure time from Italy had originally been 1900 but I had been advised by text message that the new departure time would be 1700 and that we should be there two hours before the departure time. This seemed like overkill but rules are rules I thought and so, being a moderately efficient former mariner, I was ready to follow the instructions.

As a precaution we arrived a bit early, and more or less intuitively found our way to the departure area. I had remembered large numbers of white vans being shaken down by the Italian authorities when we had arrived, and a number of military personnel armed with machine guns standing about, and had felt sorry for the Italians for having to deal with the problem. How would they sort out an innocent white van piled up to the gunwales with stuff, from a similar vehicle whose purpose might be anything but innocent?

So we reversed our departure route and were directed by a large fat man in a red vest into a sort of side area which was already occupied by a couple of camper vans. None of those efficient young people with dayglow vests and radios on this job. Directly in the area behind the ferry itself were lines and lines of vans, estate cars and old vehicles, mostly piled high with stuff on the roof. The ship’s officers were already wandering about on the quay having a look at what was to be loaded. It was extremely hot but fortunately it was possible to get to a small shopping mall for a spot of lunch. Afterwards we returned and waited to be boarded, since it was now 1500, the required two hours before departure. So time passed and by now a variety of wheeled vehicles were disappearing into any one of the three holes in the stern. This included a steady stream of trailers being pulled and pushed by what I used to know in the old days as “Tugmasters”. These are units capable of sliding under the fore end of trailers, lifting the fifth wheel and then making way with them either onto or off the ships.

The three accesses across the stern allowed a whole variety of vehicles to be loaded at the same time. And as time went on we watched as a couple were used for the white vans and the estate cars and one was used for the 40 ft trailers; so many that we began to wonder how much space was available on board.

The vast numbers of vehicles in the main dispatch area were not decreasing because more were arriving although the departure time had passed. So in temperatures of more than 35 degrees we Barcelona vehicles were required to wait, obviously until all the Tangier vehicles were loaded. Eventually, two hours after the supposed departure time, we made out way on board to find that each of the three holes in the stern was connected to a different deck level, and that on the lower decks barriers had been put in place, I assume in order to create the “vertical safety zones”.

According to the internet data the ship is capable of carrying 760 vehicles and 2200 passengers in 387 cabins, and it did seem to be extremely crowded, particularly with children who were members of families obviously on their way to Tangier, which was to be a two day trip. Back in the past when I travelled with my own children I have asked and received permission to visit the bridge, being an old seafarer and all, but I’m past that now, nevertheless I could not help checking out the liferafts on the upper deck. There were thirty-six of them each one capable of carrying 51 people. Assuming that they were to be launched from their stowed position, how on earth would people actually manage to get into them? Would they jump from the upper deck wearing their life-jackets? Dangerous we would think, or by some means go to a lower deck and jump from there, or wait until the ship was sinking? So many questions and so few answers, since there was no safety briefing.

And the voyage itself slightly odd, since the ship seemed to have been subtly adjusted for its clientele. There was a restaurant and a self service café, the latter with numerous access doors, all of them locked except for one which ensured that the people wishing to eat would form an orderly line, one assumes because those going to Tangier are less disciplined when it comes to queuing than those going to, say, Plymouth. And one of the areas advertised which created quite a interesting image was the “lido” with its pool and associated bar, but going there it was evident that rather than being a sunny swimming spot, it was the area of choice for men in Arab garb, who sat about the empty pool mostly in deep conversation. And those who wished to sit outside had to take plastic chairs from the area and take them out on deck. Where were the mothers and the children we might ask? Well, amongst the public rooms there was an enormous lounge used for nothing else, so it seemed, than the entertainment of the vast numbers of children, for which a small team of entertainers had been provided.

Despite the extremely late departure the ship easily made its arrival time at Barcelona and being almost last on, it was no problem for us to get off and drive away into the Spanish traffic. One assumes that after about an hour the Excellent raised its drawbridge and continued on its journey to Africa.


The Angela Arcella after the collision from the report.

Back in the middle of last year the heavy lift ship Maria sank a fishing vessel in Valletta Harbour, resulting in an investigation carried out by the Malta Marine Authorities. There were no injuries or loss of life. At the centre of accident was the operation of the ship’s CP system. As the vessel was manoeuvring in the harbour the master set the CP control in the wheelhouse to zero, and walked out to the port wing where he pressed the button to take control from there, and set the control to astern, but nothing seemed to be happening. Hence he dashed back into the wheelhouse and resumed control from there, setting the pitch control to astern. Nothing still seemed to be happening, and the ship, still going ahead, ran into the fishing vessel Angela Arcella, causing considerable damage. Thereafter the ship started to make way going astern and the master attempted to stop it, with no success until the Chief Engineer told him to press the emergency stop button, which he did. However it was too late to stop the ship running into a coaster, the Union, which was tied up on the opposite side of the dock. The fishing vessel sank alongside, and the coaster was quite seriously damaged and was cast adrift, and it may be that the whole event was caused by the fact that captain was unaware that it would take 27 seconds for the astern instruction to take effect.  

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