This edition of the Ships and Oil Newsletter contains a narrative about the undfortunate accident to the Specialist, a Huson River tug, an appeal for We Were Seafarers, rumours of a possible purchase of the Viking KMAR808s by the Canadian Coast Guard, some information about the Safe Return to Port Rules and “Last Word” about a man involved in the tanker Braer disaster



The loss of the Specialist was investigated by the American National Transportation Safety Board and their report was published on May 11th 2017. The tug was built in 1956, it was 84 ft (25.6m) long and was powered by a single 1700 bhp engine. It had been tasked with the job of taking the large crane barge Weeks 533 from Jersey City to Albany (where one assumes it was to carry out a lift), and then returning with the barge to Staten Island. This involved an overnight tow up the Hudson River to Albany, a wait while the job was carried out and then a return. The tug and barge left Albany going down river at 1325 on March 10th, the distance to be travelled about 160 miles. During the first evening of the voyage the weather closed in and so the tug and tow turned and stemmed the ebb and current waiting for it to clear, which it did at about 0430 in 11th March. At 0730 on that day the log recorded that the barge had passed the tug, propelled by a strong wind astern. Some further progress was made down river but basically the tug was awaiting the arrival of the Realist, another company tug. Importantly the tug and tow were to pass through some work being undertaken to construct the new Tappan Zee Bridge at Tarrytown north of New York. This construction left a 600 foot wide navigable channel, marked with red lights at the edges, and green lights at the centre on the existing bridge. By 2000 the Realist had arrived and was made fast astern of the tow and a Weeks tugboat the Trevor had also arrived. It took up position on the port side of the barge and the Specialist changing its position to the starboard side. In this way the tugs and tow continued down river at five knots. At 0500 they were approaching the construction site at about eight knots, and the mate of the Specialist, who was at the wheel, after initially stating that they were clear to pas through the space, indicated that this was not correct and gave instructions to “go hard left”. Despite the resulting change in direction the Specialist hit the forward corner of the Barge N181 at 7.8 knots, was seriously damaged, and sank almost immediately. Three of the four crew members were lost. The owner of the company left the country, thereby avoiding prosecution. I may write more about this unfortunate event on the website since I keep wanting to add exclamation marks.


I continue to lobby for contributions to my blog, We Were Seafarers, which is intended to be a group of narratives about what it was like to work on British Merchant ships, probably during the 1950s, 60s and 70s by people who are still alive. I am amazed by the number of websites there are which deal with the technical specifications and photographs of ships from days gone by, most of them maintained and contributed to by enthusiasts, rather than people who sailed on the things, who might actually have been less enthusiastic. It can be found as a subsection of my website in the Features or by this link . I have contributed something, which coincidentally involved the Arab/Israeli six day war which took place fifty years ago next month, and there is a contribution about ships in the Pacific Islands, and I have promises from others. But it’s just a start. So if you were at sea when British ships could be seen in virtually every port in the world you will have stories about those days, and you probably regale others with them over a couple of beers. So put aside a bit of time and get writing and send me the results.



I recently wrote a column for the Towing Line newsletter about the Viking anchor-handlers which prompted a response from a reader suggesting that the ships had been hired bought or otherwise procured by the Canadian Government to fulfil their requirements for icebreakers. The story originates on the Davie Shipyard site since it is that organisation which would propose making the required modifications to the ships to fulfil Coast Guard requirements. There are no names mentioned in the proposal but there is an artist’s impression of the four ships and it is pretty obvious that since three of them are Norwegian and one is American they are in order, the Tor Viking II, the Balder Viking and the Vidar Viking and the American ship the Aiviq. While the three European ships have been active for many years and have been extremely successful in their various roles, the American ship is a recent addition to the Chouest fleet and has been pretty unsuccessful in operation. One of the major differences between the Norwegian ships and the American which occurred to me the other day as I was looking through photos of the Balder Viking for one to go with the article, is the difference in draught at which they operate. In the photo of the Balder Viking you can see that it has plenty of freeboard with the whole roller out of the water, while the Aiviq appeared to operate with the working deck virtually submerged. We don’t know whether this was necessary for stability purposes or whether it was just Gulf of Mexico force of habit. And for those of us who have always enjoyed the Viking black and yellow striped colour scheme the Canadian Coast Guard colours of red and white stripes seem tame by comparison.



The 171,000 ton MSC Meraviglia christened on 31st May 2017.

I take deep breath before embarking on this article… there we are, I’m ready. Many seafarers who have sailed on what were considered to be large ships years ago continue to question the capabilities of today’s mammoth cruise ships to provide a means of evacuation. How would all those people, now sometimes exceeding 7000 people manage to get off. The Harmony of the Seas for instance carries 6780 passengers and 2100 crew, a total of 8,890 people. The ship appears to be provided with 18 lifeboats each capable of carrying 370 people. Apart from the problems relating to actually getting 370 people into a single lifeboat, just multiplying up, the maximum number to be evacuated by lifeboat would be 6660 people leaving a couple of thousand who would probably have to be evacuated by liferaft.

But we are talking about extreme events apparently. The IMO requires that all passenger vessels more than 120 metres in length constructed after 2010 should be provided with the means of a safe return to port. This is based on the premise that the vessel itself is the safest means of survival after an major accident. We can only imagine the chaos which would result if an instruction to evacuate was given on something the size of the Harmony of the Seas from, so to speak, a standing start. I have spent about 20 years, amongst other things, analysing accidents, particularly on offshore installations of one sort or another. And some of the major findings are that many people do not know which boats to get into and even which they were in when rescued. Another major failing is that those in charge seldom give an instruction to lower the lifeboats, even if people are in them. Often it is left to the lifeboat coxswains to decide when to leave. This was particularly true of the Costa Concordia where the coxswains did sterling work. Another failing in the procedures developed for emergencies is that not enough space is provided for mustering since it is never expected that everybody who needs to muster will actually be there. Is there room, for instance, adjacent to each of the boats on the Harmony of the Seas to muster 370 people. The company would probably say no, but there is space elsewhere, and that could be true but it would be good to see how the processes have been developed and theoretically how it would all play out.

But we should bear in mind that the intention is that evacuation is an extreme event, and that actually the ships are, or will be, structured so that they can safely return to port. The accident scenarios considered are single compartment fire, and single compartment flooding with, it seems to me emphasis being placed on the fire scenarios. There is a relationship between the safe vertical zones and the accidents, and it is required that after a fire casualty there be sufficient space available within the remaining safe zones for all passengers to be accommodated. In addition it is necessary that a certain number of systems should remain available subsequent to a fire in a single space. These systems are: propulsion, steering, navigation, fuel systems, internal comms, external comms, fire main, fixed fire extinguishing, fire and smoke detection, bilge and ballast systems. In order to support the passengers, who would have to be moved from the zone containing the fire the following services should be available, sanitation, water, food, space for medical care, shelter from the environment, means of preventing heat stress and hypothermia, lighting and ventilation. And here we might remember the American cruise ship Triumph of the Seas on which there was a complete power failure, the services lost included the lavatories. One can hardly imagine the distress resulting, particularly since the thing drifted about for days until taken in tow. It was known in the American media as the “poop cruise”.

Most of the classification societies have produced guidance to help designers to develop vessels capable of conforming with the new regulations and once approved they will be noted as “Passenger ship – SRTP”. But it is one thing to produce guidance and another thing to follow it, and some of the guidance provides possible distribution for propulsion systems which are as one would expect, pretty complex since it is necessary to distribute them through more than one vertical safety zone.

There are rules, or as some have defined them “performance requirements’ concerning the SRTP process, this is because the regulations require that systems remain operational but do not define what this means. And also to be taken into consideration is the distance that the ship is likely to be from port, and the speed at which it is supposed to get home. There is guidance which suggests that a speed of seven knots or half the design speed, whichever is less will be required. In addition, on the loss of any compartment within the casualty threshold, there must be sufficient fuel available for the vessel to reach port, and if there is no limit on the vessel’s range of operations  a range of 2000 miles is recommended.

If the vessel in question is a ferry then obviously the facilities required are less than those which would be required for a cruise ship many miles from the nearest land. It is also said that some manual activities are allowed but that any manual activities to restore systems must be carried out within one hour of the accident.

Some classification societies suggest that a process similar to an FMEA (a failure mode and effect anaysis) is required for each of the disabled compartments which can amount to hundreds of FMEAs, one for each of the differing compartments for each of the required systems. Such processes are not simple. In my life dealing with oil rig safety I have had occasion to carry out FMEAs on a variety of systems. Ballast systems were a favourite for some legislations and on one rig which had a manually operated valve in the system in the pump room, at the bottom of a shaft which was only accessed by an elevator, I had a job to convince the owners that they had to include the reliability of the elevator (lift to you Brits) in the FMEA.

We can see that some of the arrangements are fairly straightforward. In relation to the passenger space, it is a matter of ensuring that there is sufficient room for the passengers from one safety zone in all the others, and that food would be available. This would seem to make the “Burma Road” redundant; it used to be an alleyway extending for much of the length of a passenger ship just above the tank top, along which most of the provisions and meals before and after preparation were transported.

But such things as electrical supplies are more problematical and when I used to do safety case development for oil rigs we used to visit every compartment and consider the very things the new regulations deal with, fire and flood, and for us, in addition, explosions. We would look at all the systems in the space and passing though the space, and consider the level of risk, although the criteria involved were slightly different. Typically if a space contained a load of essential electrical systems we might recommend the inclusion of a fixed fire fighting system, which would be damage limitation. But the same space on a passenger ship would require duplication or alteration since the criteria would assume that the space was burnt out, but that the systems lost in that space would still be available elsewhere.

And in all of this, as well as the whole process requiring to be developed when the ship is still on the drawing board, it is going to be down to Class, by the look of it, to decide whether the results are acceptable, since most registries nominate classification societies to act on their behalf in relation to safety. So two things. The first, is this just a blank cheque for the classification societies? And the second don’t take any of the above as gospel, it is all very complex.  



I was surprised to hear a bit of a eulogy to Captain Jim Dickson, who died earlier in May, on the BBC Radio 4 programme “Last Word”. He had for many years been harbourmaster of Sullom Voe, the oil terminal on the west coast of the Shetland Islands, retiring in 2008. But maybe the reason for him being in the news was his involvement in the Braer disaster which took place back in 1993. Apparently as the disabled ship was being driven towards the southernmost point of the Shetland Islands main island, Captain Dickson was lowered onto the ship from a helicopter. Of course as events played out he could do nothing. Despite the presence of a Star Offshore anchor-handler the Star Sirius, nothing could be done and the ship ended up on the rocks, and its whole cargo of 100,000 tons of Norwegian crude was lost. It was a famous wreck and after a public enquiry resulted in the government of the day hiring a number of ships to act a emergency towing vessels around the UK. Now, as time as passed and there have been no further events, the RTVs have been  removed, except for one, and even the continued presence of that one appears to be constantly under review. I don’t know whether the government have done a risk assessment or whether they are just taking a chance, but it seems to me like the latter

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