This month's newsletter contains a bit of personal stuff from me. I had chosen not to acknowledge what is known as the festive season at all because I don't think 2016 has been very festive, but then I remembered being in Vera Cruz in Mexico for two New Years, 30 years apart and so included something about both visits. I have also written something about the Penlee lifeboat disaster, the sinking of the two Maersk S Class anchor-handers while under tow, the expansion of Aberdeen Harbour and failings in marine safety management systems.


 Here is the Sugar Carrier at one time flagship of the Silvertown Services (Shipping) fleet, built in Aberdeen at the Hall Russell’s yard, in 1959. The ownership of this photograph is claimed by somebody, but it looks like the Tate and Lyle publicity photograph that I can remember so it is probably still a Sky Photos production.

I had determined that I was going to ignore the festive season altogether, but on recollecting where I was on one New Year´s eve many years ago I changed my mind. On New Year´s eve in 1965 I was second mate on a sugar boat. It  was owned by Silvertown Services (Shipping) and I think it was called the Sugar Carrier and was the flagship of the fleet. We were in Vera Cruz, the Mexican port and holiday resort. I had found it to be a delightful place, full of a whiff of danger and attractive young women, together with a town square surrounded by bars and marimba bands, around which the population would promenade in the evenings. Later, when my new girlfriend and I were selecting somewhere to spend Christmas together I chose Vera Cruz again, and it had remained equally charming. The marimba bands and the bars were still there and the banks were guarded by men with machine guns. Additionally during a creative writing course my fellow potential authors had suggested that I to write something about my life, rather than something entirely unrelated, and so I chose Vera Cruz again for the site of a fictional story. And I must say that the captains I had sailed with on the sugar boats had been universally professional and gentlemanly and had allowed me as a very youthful second mate, to navigate their vessels half way round the world, never questioning my capabilities. The master in my narrative I was to meet later in my marine career, and was one of the reasons for my change in direction. So for those who can be bothered I have included this New Year story. You can read it here.


The 19th December saw the 25th anniversary of the Penlee lifeboat disaster, when the lifeboat was sent out to the new mini-bulk carrier Union Star which had broken down on its maiden voyage and was being driven towards the rocks in Mounts Bay, Cornwall. The lifeboat, the Solomon Browne, was a 1960 built wooden lifeboat capable of 9 knots. The ship had a crew of five, and also on board were the captain’s wife and two step-daughters, who had been picked up at an unauthorised stop on the east coast of England. The lifeboat had a crew of eight. A Royal Navy Sea King helicopter was also dispatched to the scene, flown by a US Navy exchange pilot but the weather, with wind speeds of up to 90 knots and seas of 60 feet prevented it from winching anyone off the ship.  However the pilot witnessed the lifeboat getting alongside the coaster, after which it reported as having rescued four people, and then going back alongside in an attempt to recover the remaining personnel, but it was dashed onto the hatch covers and both it and its crew and all the personnel from the ship were lost. The helicopter is preserved at the RN air station at Yeovilton, mainly because it was flown by Prince Andrew in the 1982 Falklands War.    


The Battler and the S Class under way. Photo: John Daugaard Hansen.

The recent sinking of two of the Maersk S Class anchor-handlers being towed towards the breakers on 23rd December by Maersk Battler has featured in most of the marine media in recent days, with one or two forums (fora?) exchanging views as to why this could have happened. The gCaptain site has published photographs of the two ships side by side on the end of a single tow wire as they left Denmark, and as some have said, “surely these ships were pretty new”. They were. The class entered service in 1999, and actually I wrote a review of the Maersk Searcher for the “new” Offshore Support Journal in that year. So it seems that the two ships were tied to each other and that in a swell of the French coast they damaged each other sufficiently to allow water ingress and then for them to sink. As I write this I still wonder how it could have happened. Firstly did not the people who arranged for the tow realise that even with fendering between the ships it was pretty certain that damage would result, unless the seas were flat calm for the duration of the voyage, pretty unlikely in December. And secondly even if the vessels were holed there would have to be a number of internal spaces open to each other for the ships to sink, or at least we might have thought so. And then it has been reported that when the Maersk Shipper sank it caused the Maersk Searcher to capsize but that the latter remained afloat for some time. If they were tied together how did that happen?  And what were they trying to achieve anyway? It seems that they might have been saving on one crew’s wages for a couple of weeks. Hard times for the Maersk Company!


 The Big Orange XVIII. They ticked the boxes, but the ship still created mayhem at Ekofisk (See my book "A Catalogue of Disasters".  Photo: Scott Boulter.

I sit at the feet of Dr Nippin Anand, who writes in the Nautical Institute magazine Seaways on safety matters, generally debunking current accepted practice, this on his own behalf rather than on behalf of his employer who is, I think, DNV.

Back in June 2016 he wrote at length about the Hoegh Osaka incident and the various things required of the crew during the loading, all of which might have been complied with, only for the ship to lean over so far while rounding the West Bramble Buoy at the bottom of Southampton Water that the rudder and propeller came out of the water. Fortunately it ran aground on the Bramble Bank before it had completely fallen over. One the central points for him, and for me, was the fact that the remote ballast gauging system was non-operational and that the management company had not chosen to repair it because there was a secondary system available – manual sounding (Give Me Strength!). This had resulted in the chief officer constantly estimating the ballast quantities and on the night in question he have overestimated by 600 tonnes.  The MAIB had itself suggested that the company rationalise the checklists which at the time of the accident contained 213 tickboxes, all of them ticked by the chief officer. But this event and others indicate that just ticking boxes is not going to do the job. In many ways it is just a means of blaming the crew for anything that might go wrong.

I am reminded of a problem which occurred on a semi-submersible which was laid up in the Cromary Firth some years ago, which had suffered from a flooded pump room in one of the pontoons. “Why had the flood detection system not worked?” those investigating the incident asked. After all the daily routine was for one of the deck crew to go down into the pump room in the elevator and check the detection system which consisted of a float which would rise and initate an alarm in the control room. He was supposed to lift the float, and doubtless the man in the control room was supposed to see that the alarm had been raised and tick a box. Every day the appropriate inspection had been carried out and recorded. But the investigation determined that the system had been accidentally disconnected twelve years earlier, so it had been checked more than 4000 times and its failings had never been detected.

And further back in time, possibly when the only checklist in the marine world was the one used by junior officers to check out the status of the fire fighting appliances I, in my role as chief officer of an offshore vessel, was faced with the task of checking on the vent closures. All of them had been ticked on every previous occasion since the vessel had entered service. But being a man unable to pretend to do a job, I went round the ship checking the vents, to find that the one outside the forecastle had been stuck in the open position ever since modifications had been carried out on the ship some years earlier. A metal spar had been added to strengthen the foremast in front of the vent, which prevented it from being closed – ever.

 And, those of you who read the last newsletter may remember the accident on the  Skandi Pacific. During the securing of the backload a large wave swept up the deck of the ship pushing a number of cargo items ahead of it. This resulted in one of the deck crew bring crushed between a container and a skip. Prior to the ship going alongside a semi-submerasible to back load cargo, the master, in accordance with the company safety management manual, had carried out  a toolbox talk with the mate, the second mate and the two crew members who were to be working on deck. At 0200 at the change of watch the crew member who was going on watch came to the bridge, received his toolbox talk and “signed the briefing form”.  He then went to the deck and took over from the man who was to be relieved. But the vessel was shipping seas aft, and so work with the rig ceased, and it was during the securing of the cargo that the casualty occurred. So what good was the toolbox talk? It turns out that the crew had become accustomed to waves sweeping up the deck, and one assumes they were therefore familiar with cargo shifting about. It was just bad luck that one of the them was trapped within the lashing system. The Skandi Pacific safety management system contained risk assessments which included details of the tasks, the people involved, the identified risks and the control measures, and apparently these risk assessments were discussed at the tooblbox talks, and the company apparently promoted a “stop the job” culture. The SMS also contained a management of change process. But none of this prevented the man from being killed.

So what can we take away from these accidents and, where appropriate, their subsequent investigations? Seriously, even after the crew of the Skandi Pacific had carried out everything that the company required of it in terms of risk assessments and toolbox talks, there was still the worst possible outcome from what was supposed to be a routine activity. Why did one of the deck crew not stop the job if he thought the situation was dangerous? Did anyone even realise that the situation was dangerous? In some respects it could be that the DP system was to blame, since it allowed the second mate to step the ship away from the rig but to maintain the heading at the second position, and it was stern to the sea. Had the ship not been capable of DP operations then there is no doubt that it would have been allowed to drift downwind, automatically reducing the possiblity of seas coming aboard. And honestly as a former anchor-handler master I have to ask why was anyone allowing seas to come aboard anyway. Even stern to the weather it was just a matter of getting the draught and trim right in the moderate sea condition prevailing at the time.

So rather than getting people to sign that they have received and understood the safety briefing surely it would be better to make sure that people remain safe, thereby keeping the responsibility with the people in charge, rather than handing it over to the individual by means of a signature.

In relation to the Hoegh Osaka, and maybe the Skandi Pacific I would like to quote the last paragraph from Dr Anand’s article. “After more than two decades of futile attempts to implement a structured, systematic and documented approach in managing safety, it should be clear that it does not exist. The case discussed here was not chosen because it was unique or one-off. It only serves as a recent example available in the public domain to expose the fatal fallacy that we call safety management.” These are strong words and within the article he suggests that rather than just going for conformance with regulations an alternative approach might be to demand from organisations a “duty of care” for their employees. This could be the implementation of what might be called a “safety culture”, a top down approach to keeping employees alive and uninjured.   In addition what we seem to lack is guidance. There are plenty of words in formal documentation about what should not be done, or the reverse, which is that the work should only be done in a certain way, but not much in the way of guidance. Even the current offshore bible “Guidelines for Offshore Marine Operations” published in 2013, gives the appearance of development by a committee, and in parts attempts to regulate what might actually be the ordinary practice of good seamanship. There are, for instance, 21 separate instructions for a crane driver engaged in personnel transfer, the instructions extend to half a dozen pages. But will any crane drivers on any offshore installations anywhere, ever have seen the G-OMO? In the same document instructions relating to towing extend to two pages. I could go on, and probably will do so in future newsletters, but just in case it’s not clear, I’m with Dr Anand. We need to have a good look at the whole process of safety management.


 A simulation of the new Aberdeen Harbour

There is just a bit of good news this month, apart from the fact that I am still married to the lady with whom I went to Vera Cruz in 1996.  The Aberdeen Harbour Board has announced that they are to expand the harbour into Nigg Bay which is just to the south of Balnagask Golf Course, which makes it an entirely separate facility only connected to the part of the port on the south side of the River Dee by St Fitticks Road.

The harbour like to keep control of as much of the surrounding area as possible to minimise possible objections to their industrial expansion. But they can expect to get very little flack from turning what is currently a bit of open coastline into an industrial area.

Since it is an attractive bay maybe the inhabitants in the luxury penthouses overlooking the sea might be concerned. But wait, we are talking about Torry. You need a passport to get over the border and the flats overlooking the bay are some slightly down at the heel council properties.

And the simulation shows a block of white one storey buidings in the distance. Would the people living in them not be worried at the encroachment and likely presence of vessels, maybe even including cruise ships, which the port is currently unable to service. Probably not, the problem might in fact be the other way round, since the white buildings are a major sewage works, currently with an outfall about half a mile offshore. You can see where it is because of the clouds of seabirds in  flight over it as they feed on the fish feeding on…what fish like best.


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