This month's newsletter contains a few words about the interesting Spanish naval museum in Madrid, a comment about a recently reported towing incident, a short article about some of the historic aspects of "Going to Sea", the main article about the development of lifeboats and the associated problems and the resent problems faced by ENI and the Saipem 12000.


Madrid has never really been a popular city for the British. They prefer to go to the coast where it is warmer, and the beer is cheaper, but even so on some days half the population of Europe seems to be in the city, and a great many of them making their way down the Paseo del Prado towards the Prado, one of the most famous art galleries in the world, or the Thyssen Bornemisza not quite so famous, but always worth a visit. Less popular but within a stone’s throw of these august buildings is the Naval Museum, which is a sort of annex to the Navy Ministry. It is well worth having a look round, featuring as it does, models of warships from the earliest days, when Spain ruled the waves, up to today, and including many models from the early 20th century when Britain not only ruled the waves, but built the ships for everyone else’s navies, including that of Spain. It is a traditional museum of the sort many of us like to remember, and prefer to visit. It does not attempt to engage the visitor with lots of whizz-bang presentations, most of them apparently aimed at the under tens, which seems to be the modern approach, instead it allows you to browse the exhibits, and read the plaques placed next to them and in that way improve you knowledge of the ships and events which shaped Spain’s nautical history. One of the oldest items in the collection is the chart of the known world by Juan de la Costa, drawn up in 1500. It is said to be the oldest chart showing the American continent. The photograph is of a model of a 28 gun frigate, Santa Rosalia, built in Havana in 1747 during the time when Spain occupied Cuba and appears to have been used on a Spanish voyage of discovery in 1774.   


I have been trying to run to earth the details of a towing accident which has been reported in the safety press from an alert created by the US Coast Guard. The incident concerned a “dock to dock” tow of a tug and tow, we can only say, somewhere in US coastal waters. The owners of the tug had decided that it should be used to tow a barge on inland waterways and that, despite serious weather warnings, they thought that it would still be fine to proceed. There was only one man on the tug – the captain - and one man on the tow - a hired deckhand. They started off at six pm, but within a few hours the weather had worsened to heavy snow (the report says near white out conditions) with 25-30 knot winds. Due to the high winds and heavy seas the towing vessel capsized at about 1.30 in the morning. The deckhand on the tow saw the captain in the water but lost sight of him in the darkness and rough weather. His body was found two days later. He had not been wearing any form of lifejacket. The alert suggests that better risk assessment should be carried out and that proper information should be offered about the lifejackets. The ones used, PFDs (personal flotation devices) were an inflatable type, apparently susceptible to failure in cold weather. No-one has suggested that it might be a good idea to have more than one person on a towing vessel, which surely would have been better, regardless of how small the tug was. No matter how experienced the captain, risky voyages are better evaluated if more than one person is involved, and that requirement may exclude the owners, whose primary objective is probably the gaining of revenue. It is a pity the report lacks the detail which would let us get a handle on it. The size of the tug, the type of the tow, the distances involved, the departure point and the destination.   


I happen to be the owner of a two volume tome “Shipping Wonders of the World” dated some time in the 1930s and, looking for some suitable item to include in this month’s newsletter, I randomly opened a page to find a photo of the cadets at the Nautical College, Pangbourne in a very unusual sailing vessel, and we should remember that the college is close to the banks of the River Thames rather than the sea. The book goes on to say that ”mechanisation and steam have not lessened the romance of a career at sea. Courage endurance and resourcefulness are still called for”. The article was written many years ago when there were many hundreds of British merchant ships out there and all the training colleges were at full stretch but what we might not know is that the whole process of training young men to go to sea was started by the Marine Society in 1756, sponsored by Mr Hanway, the inventor of the umbrella. This must have been a genuine altruistic activity on his part, since umbrellas are of limited use on board ship. The article goes on to enumerate the many former warships from the age of sail which were converted into training ships in the last years of the 19th century, and we know that some of them were moved to sites ashore and continued to train mariners. What might not be evident to everyone today is that many former nautical colleges are now parts of local authority establishments, and you have a job to find them amongst the availability of courses for hairdressing, tourist hospitality and bricklaying. In fact I was just checking some Merchant Navy Training Board links and one of the colleges they name no longer has any maritime courses at all. Oh dear!


A model of a quadrant davit setup as fitted to the Titanic.  

I am at present having a look at the full report on the loss of the El Faro in October 2015. It is distressing stuff, particularly the records of the conversations which took place on the bridge in the run up to the disaster. For those who might not know about this, and there are bound to be some, the ship, a ro/ro container ship, was on a regular run between Jacksonville and Puerto Rico when it sailed into the eye of hurricane Joaquin and was sunk, with the loss of all hands. In the aftermath of the misfortune there has been much discussion on the gCaptain website about lifeboats, and how open boats should no longer be allowed, since the ship was so equipped, one of them having a motor and the other capable of being propelled by “Fleming Gear”, which is a system of levers placed ahead of the thwarts so that the passengers in the boat would also be capable of providing propulsion.  Alternatively, since open boats are only still allowed on vessels built prior to 1986, maybe the vessels which are permitted to carry them should not be allowed. The El Faro was built in 1975, and so it qualified, and those of us who are getting on a bit, and who have spent time at sea probably have some experience of open boats, and have been involved in, or have heard stories about things that went wrong with such craft.

I was drawn to the description of the davits provided on the El Faro, which was “the davits roll on tracks”. Do you remember those? Many merchant ships were fitted with them after the second world war, probably because they were cheap, and without any aids other than gravity could be moved from the stowed position in board to a position alongside the embarkation deck, just by taking the brake off. The boat would roll down the inclined plain and then carry on into the vertical so that the arms extend outwards over the side and the boat itself will come alongside the embarkation deck. Taking the brake off required a certain amount of confidence in the system since it was imprudent to arrest the process until the boat was on its way downwards, rather than on its way diagonally, during the first part of the operation. Putting the brake on too early would result in the boat being thrown outwards horizontally, possibly emptying the contents into the sea. Today davits seem to consist of an arm which pivots at deck level so that when the brake is released the angle changes from inboard to outboard putting the boat over the side.

All lifesaving appliances have to conform with SOLAS 1974, that last complete version of the IMO “Safety of Life at Sea” document, which was initiated in 1914 and was prompted by the Titanic disaster. The Titanic was fitted with “quadrant davits’ on which were suspended 20 boats with a collective capacity for 1178 people even though the ship had a capacity of 3327 persons. These davits were operated by the crew heaving up on the tackles to lift the boats out of their cradles and then the davits were wound out to put the boats overside. In the actual disaster the passengers were frightened to get into the boats and so initially they were underloaded, and then overloaded, eventually rescuing over 700 people. The ship’s original design required that each set of davits would have two boats assigned, one on top of the other, but the management determined that the two boats would spoil the view from the boat deck, and if we chose to do the maths they would still have only had a capacity of 2356 people, leaving about 1000 lacking any means of evacuation.

It is one of those features of all the SOLAS regulations that when the rules are changed they are applied to construction after the initiation date, so stuff out there can still be struggling along with out-dated and unsuitable equipment – so it is said of the El Faro. But by 1986 additional requirements had been made of lifeboats, as well as the rule that they should be totally enclosed. Due at least in part to the problems suffered during the loss of the Norwegian semi-submersible Alexander Keilland, the IMO had adopted a resolution which required lifeboats to be fitted with “on load release gear” which of course meant that the boat could be released from the falls even when it was above the sea, or partially in the water, thereby possibly reducing the difficulties of getting the boats away in rough weather. In addition, designers were required to provide the boats with some sort of a safety system which would ensure that the boats were in the water, prior to release. However, it was always going to be possible for lifeboats to be launched before they were in the sea by the use of some sort of override system. Now, although I had not intended it to be part of this presentation the on load release systems have proved to be the cause (if that is the right word) of many accidents, when boats have plummeted from the falls into the sea when people have been carrying out maintenance, with fatalities. Indeed some have said that lifeboats are so dangerous and so little used that they should not be carried.

Elsewhere the humble lifeboat, which in the old days was an open clinker built wooden boat, provided with enough oars for it to be rowed, and a sail or motor, has morphed into a pretty elaborate passenger craft, used to get the passengers on cruise ships into ports where the ship itself is prevented from entry, due to size or draught. These modern craft may be able to carry 350 people either as a tender, or as a lifeboat although once more, things have moved on and modern IMO requirements are that passenger ships should be able to return to port in the event of something going wrong. This requirement has necessitated even more complex regulatory conformance than what is now required for lifeboats.

A typical modern lifeboat installation on a 21st century cruise ship.

As I write this I realise that there is a book here somewhere, since  epic journeys have been carried out in lifeboats, particularly during the Second World War, and I have experience myself of operating what we might call passenger tenders from a cruise ship back when I was a young man. The ship was the P&O Arcadia which was employed on cruises to the West Indies from UK back in the early 1960s, and I was one of about half a dozen apprentices employed to drive the boats, four of which were in the style of a naval admiral’s barge and two were conventional open boats fitted with an engine. Everything about the job was exciting, including putting them in the water, carrying the passengers into small seldom visited ports and lastly recovering them. If there was a dream job surely that was it. Of course they were all extremely unreliable, but somehow that added to the excitement for the passengers as well.

While passenger ships have opted for larger and larger conventional enclosed boats, sculpted to their requirements, cargo carriers have leant towards the other option, the free-fall boat. The first free-fall boat was installed on a merchant ship in the 1960s, but only in this century does it seem to have caught on, partly due to cost. And if the ship-owners were against them they could produce arguments relating to their safe operation, which might make people think twice. The offshore industry has been more enthusiastic since they are easier to get away from offshore installations in emergencies.

In the end we would probably say that if you need to use the boats something has gone drastically wrong, and it is the earlier problems that you should be looking at preventing. We people involved in safety have often said that it is better to have a fence at the top of the cliff rather than an ambulance at the bottom.

The SAIPEM 12000

The Saipem 12000 is a “6th Generation” drillship, the “12000” indicating that it is designed to be able to work in 12000 ft (3658 metres) of water, and can have a variable deck load of 20,000 tons. It is a DP3 ship and has well control equipment capable of dealing with high pressure/high temperature wells up to 15,000 psi. It also has accommodation for 200 people. So in all it’s a pretty sophisticated and expensive piece of equipment. And for the past week or so it has been doing nothing. Not featuring in your usual news broadcasts has been the stand-off between the Bahamian registered Saipem 12000 and a group of Turkish warships in Cypriot waters. This marine stalemate may well be related to the fact that Cyprus is still divided in two, with the Turkish Cypriot state having been unilaterally established in 1983, this state only being recognised by Turkey. Hence all the waters around the island are actually part of the Cyprus. The Saipem 12000 had drilled a well in Cypriot waters for ENI and was on its way to drill another when its progress was blocked by the Turkish warships. This sounds a bit like piracy to me, but as usual it is all too difficult for anyone to do anything about, and after a week of waiting for something to happen, the company have moved the ship on to a well it is to drill off Morocco, but promises to be back.

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