A bit of information about the Nautical Institute on the occasion of its annual conference in Aberdeen. Subchapter M, well, almost nothing about it at all because it is so long. A short description of the collision between the Capt Shorty C and the Jackie. A summary of the loss of the Cemfjord in January 2015, and the IADC annual drilling conference in Estoril in June 2016.



A Farstad platform ship passing the old Roundhouse, formerly the site of Port Control in Aberdeen.

I spent some time today thinking about what good news I could include in the newsletter, and it occurred to me that maybe the fact that the Nautical institute held its annual conference in Aberdeen earlier this month is actually good news. From small beginnings in the 1970s it is now a world wide organisation promoting professional expertise amongst seafarers. There are apparently more than 7000 members from 110 countries.

It is now the primary controlling organisation for the issue of DP certification and has representatives at the IMO. It produces a monthly magazine “Seaways” which mostly contains articles on the more esoteric subjects relating to the operation of ships, and supports local branches in their efforts to hold regular meetings where members can meet and listen to expert papers on a variety of nautical subjects.

And since I seem to be doing a bit of advertising for the organisation, who can join? Back in the day I think only master mariners, those people formally qualified to command ships, could be members, but gradually the opportunities have widened, and now people who are involved in the marine business can be associate members. At the annual conference there was a table of cadets, mostly smartly uniformed, which impressed the more ancient of us. But we live now in a different world from that inhabited by those who went to sea in the days of the British Merchant navy, and at least one of the cadets had sailed on a ship where he was the only native English speaker, and it was a 200,000 ton bulk carrier.

Probably for those of us who are less tolerant of aspirational statements, proffering action, the outcomes from the conference were less satisfactory, with the committee of the organisation taking away with them a number of recommendations which could probably be collectively described, as “the industry must do better”.


Since the US Coast Guard announced that they had issued “Subchapter M’ on June 20, to the American towing industry I have had several looks at the opening pages. It is said to extend to 800 pages, and so will take a bit of reading and starts with an extensive section of questions and answers, which is included to apparently justify the acceptance or not of changes to the document. I have only skimmed through bits of it, and may get round to reading the whole thing eventually if time allows or someone pays me to do so. But there we are, if you are faced with prescriptive rather than goal setting legislation, the regulators will endeavour to prevent people from sidestepping whatever the intent of the wording might be, and so they have to present stuff in about three different ways. For instance, there is some discussion about the requirement for tugs to be provided with “fathometers” or as we Brits know them “echo sounders”. Several organisations protested at this requirement saying that there was no need for towboats to be fitted with these devices because they only operated in waterways, the depth of which were known. But, responded the Coast Guard, what if they strayed from the channel? In that situation they would need to have an idea of the depth below the hull. And what is a towing vessel anyway? The Coast Guard have had to devote considerable wordage to this question, and the answer is roughly ‘any vessel more than 26 ft long  engaged in towing or pulling other things, alth0ugh any vessel less than 26 feet long engaged in towing or pushing barges containing hydrocarbons must also conform.


The naphtha barge during at the entrance to the Intracoastal Waterway.

The American National Transport Safety Board reported at the end of last month on a collision between two tug/barge combinations close to Houston at the entrance to the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway back in July 2015. The event involved the pusher tug Capt. Shorty C (good name) which was pushing two barges loaded with cumene, a volatile hydrocarbon product, and the tug Jackie pushing two similar barges, but loaded with naphtha  another volatile hydrocarbon derivative. The Capt. Shorty C was proceeding in an easterly direction, approaching the waterway entrance at Port Bolivar, while the Jackie was actually in the channel going westwards. And those of us anticipating the excitement to come will not be surprised to learn that the Coast Pilot Vol 5 specifically warns vessels not to meet at this juncture of the waterway system. At 0056 the watchkeeper of the Capt. Shorty C called the watchkeeper on the Jackie suggesting they pass port to port and the latter agreed. But thereafter the Capt Shorty C had to alter to port to counter the current, which put him on a collision course with the Jackie. He attempted to alter back to starboard to avert the collision, but seemed to have lost steerage, so he set the starboard engine astern to swing the head to starboard, only to have it shut down. The watchkeeper of the Jackie sounded the general alarm and with admirable understatement added “It ain’t looking too good”, and the two men continued to exchange information as the vessels closed on one another, until the lead barge of the Capt. Shorty C struck the port side of the Jackie’s lead barge, causing the naphtha to ignite in spectacular fashion. Later examination of the Capt Shorty C’s systems found that both the main engine governors were shot. It was also missing 60% of the starboard rudder, and both propellers had sustained damage in earlier, but unreported incidents. There were no injuries, but some red faces.


The upturned hull of the Cemfjord photographed by the Horsey.

On 3rd January 2015 a lookout on the Northlink ferry Hrossey spotted something as it was proceeding south from the Shetland Islands towards Aberdeen, and on approaching it found the upturned hull of the cement carrier Cemfjord. It reported the finding and search and rescue efforts were initiated, but none of the eight crew members was found. Eventually the Cemfjord sank within sight of the Thurso lifeboat.

The accident was investigated by the UK Marine Accident Investigation Branch and their report was published in April 2016.

Given that the hull of the ship was on the seabed one would think that it would be difficult for any meaningful accident investigation to be carried out, but on the contrary, the report is detailed and complete and takes nearly everyone involved to task.

The vessel was Cypriot flag and was operated by a German ship management company, Brise Bereederungs GmbH, the crew except for the second engineer, who was a Filipino were Polish. The ship was a 30 year old coaster which had been converted from being a general cargo ship into a cement carrier in 1998. It was powered by a 600 bhp Deutz engine.

How had the accident occurred? In bald terms the ship was behind schedule when it left the cement loading port in Denmark, and it was on passage to Runcorn, following a well worn track across the North Sea, through the Pentland Firth and then down the west coast of UK to its discharge port. On passage it encountered adverse weather as it crossed the North Sea and the master repeatedly needed to send revisions of his arrival time to his agents. Although the ship had many times transited the Pentland Firth when the conditions were at least mildly in its favour, on this occasion the ship was faced with a westerly tidal stream propelling it towards a force ten westerly wind (for non mariners, wind is named for the direction from which it is coming, tides and currents named for the direction in which they are going).  

These are conditions which are considered to be extremely dangerous for low powered vessels, and it is probable that the captain was aware of this, but that he was probably encouraged to carry on in an effort to maintain some sort of a schedule, since the charter party required the ship to maintain a speed of about 9 knots.

There is a point on the Pentland Firth called the “Merry Men of May”, which is described by the 1875 North Sea Pilot as a place where “a sea is raised which cannot be imagined by those who have never experienced it”.  The captain of the Cemfjord was aware of the potential difficulties and AIS records indicate that the speed of the ship gradually slowed in the minutes before its disappearance. But by the time he had decided that he would attempt to delay the time of transiting the firth the ship was already being swept onwards, by a tidal stream which sometimes exceeds ten knots. It was therefore being propelled towards the most dangerous point in the firth, even though its speed through the water was being reduced, with a consequent loss of steerage. The MAIB considers that it was probable that the in addition to the loss of directional control of the ship, it was probably turning to port in order to follow its predetermined track, when it was overwhelmed by the seas, and on rolling heavily the cement cargo probably shifted, and the vessel overturned.

But when it comes to determining the reason for marine accidents the end of the accident is only the beginning of the investigation, and the investigators trawled through the history of the vessel finding that the flag state had on numerous occasions exempted it from certain SOLAS requirements, in order that it be allowed to continue on its commercial way. They found that it had been subject to numerous audits over the years and had been found wanting by numerous port state inspections, but not by the Cyprus (the flag state) inspections carried out by a DNV-GL surveyor, actually the same surveyor on every occasion. In detail it appears that on a number of occasions when the lifesaving devices, particularly the lifeboats were showing their age and therefore required repair or replacement, the managers asked some-one, either the local flag state agents or DNV-GL for an exemption, and inevitably it was granted.

The investigators also looked at the events in the loading port on the ship’s last voyage. Here it should be remembered that the charter allowed it to remain alongside for eight hours to load,  but in the middle of the night it had taken a list probably due to the malfunction of a ballast pump and loading had been stopped. The captain had got the agent to source a portable pump, which had been supplied and in time the list had been controlled. The investigation determined that the maximum list which was allowed during loading was two degrees, but that the ship had gone over to five degrees before the job was stopped, and this only because the chute was being bent. Guidance for the loading and carriage of cement suggests that the vessel should be kept upright during the activity. Of course the list and the causes of the list resulted in the ship spending 13 hours alongside instead of eight, which was not a great start for the voyage.

And then the MAIB reviewed the involvement of the Coast Guard, who had received a call from the Cemfjord as it entered the Pentland Firth and told the ship that it did not have to report on its departure for the waterway, because they would be monitoring its AIS presentation. As it turned out the MCA had failed to monitor the AIS of the ship because they did not notice when it disappeared from their presentations.  The MAIB had previously recommended that reporting of vessels on entering and leaving the Pentland Firth should be mandatory, rather than voluntary, but the Coast Guard had not chosen to action the recommendation. There was the possibility that had the rescue services been aware that the ship had capsized within minutes of the disaster then lives might have been saved.

And then there is the subject of fatigue, and it is so much part of any discussions about conditions aboard ships that it has become little more than background noise. In the report on the loss of the Cemfjord the MAIB present summaries of several other accidents where fatigue has played a major part, and suggests that it is possible that the deck officers were sufficiently fatigued for their decision making capabilities to be adversely affected. And here I’m going to stray away from the content of the report and ask my readers to imagine what life might have been like on the Cemfjord with the captain and the mate working six on six off, when things were going well, and more when they were not. Those of us who have worked such a schedule can say that after a few weeks you wonder which way is up, unless you get some proper rest. This was unlikely to be possible on the Cemfjord which had a particularly punishing schedule. Probably they would try to arrange things so that the captain took the ship into port, and then went to bed for a glorious eight hours while the mate did the loading, and would then get up to take the ship to sea. On this occasion he had had to sort out the business of the portable pump, destroying any possibility of proper rest.

All in all, while the captain of the ship made errors it appears that the managers of  were less than straightforward in their attempts to keep the ship trading, the surveyors were insufficiently diligent in their audits, the MCA were inattentive in their oversight of vessel activities and the whole industry negligent in its avoidance of the fatigue question.


I have also been to the IADC annual drilling conference, last month, held in the delightful Portuguese seaside resort of Estoril. I liked it because there were lots of art nouveau houses close to the central park, and the Estoril Congress Centre. I was there because the company of which I am still a director, “Marex Marine and Risk Consultancy” had a stand, but if I’m being honest we did little business, due to the financial strictures now ensuring that no-one in the oil industry spends any money they shouldn’t. Of course it is a matter of view whether going to conferences is a waste, but what is undeniable is that some companies had enrolled numbers of their executives but then they had not turned up. Either way, this is bad business. If they had spent the money to send their guys to Portugal, the best thing they could have done was to complete the job – on the other hand there is the remote possibility that they had come over to Portugal, but had not bothered with the boredom of attending the conference. It used to happen! Those of us manning the stands out in the atrium spent quite a lot of time talking to each other, rather than possible clients, and to be honest we were good company, so it wasn’t a total loss, but as one of our group observed, without the support services, looking for business the conference would have had to be called off.



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