Topics: The May 2016 Newsletter contains some views about the terrible casualties in the Mediterranean, some information about the use of VHFs in potential collision situations, some May anniversaries including the Battle of Jutland on 31st May 1916 and the maiden voyage of the Queen Mary on 27th May 1936, and something about the way the designers of offshore oil rigs manage to conform with the regulations, while doing nothing for the safety of their personnel.


A few days ago the media was full of a video taken by the Italian Coast Guard of a fishing vessel gradually turning over in the Mediterranean and depositing all the asylum seekers on board, some 500 of them into the sea. Apparently about 100 of them died. People outside Europe may not be aware of the sheer scale of the current movement of people across the med from North Africa towards the closest points in Europe, the favourite being Lampedusa, the small Italian island which is closer to Africa than Italy. While refugees from Turkey have used small inflatable boats to attempt to cover the short distance to Rhodes – Greece then. The people smugglers from North Africa seem to have found fishing boats and coasters and sent them off with as many people on board as they will hold. The various coastguard services are up to their eyes, and a number of chartered offshore vessels are picking up survivors after these fragile craft sink.

The video recording of the sinking of the fishing vessel shows people rushing to the side of the vessel as the possibility of rescue by the Coast Guard becomes evident, and as a result of the movement of the people on the deck the ship gradually turns turtle. I was surprised to see that the propeller keeps turning, even when it is upside down. What sort of engine would keep working even when the ship is upside down?

In some cases merchant ships have e picked up refugees, one would think at some risk to themselves since it may be that the numbers rescued far exceed the total number of crew on the ship. When will this all end. How can this terrible problem be sorted out. We do not have any answers, and as the borders in Europe are defended, the numbers of people making hazardous sea crossings is likely to increase.


I was recently perusing a mariner’s forum on the internet and found some American mariners discussing the use of VHF as a means of collision avoidance. Why not? They seemed to be saying. Surely it’s going to be a help.

This is a modern phenomenon as the marine VHF has ceased to be a thing of fear, rather it is often used as a means of irritating other mariners. On my first trip to sea I was the junior apprentice standing at the back of the bridge as the ship was approaching Port Said. On a small shelf under the bridge windows was a white telephone – a handset connected to the new VHF set in the Radio Room. Who was going to pick up the handset for the first time. The officers looked at each other and stood back – the Captain, turned waved me forward and pointed to the telephone. How things have changed.

But just for the guys on the gCaptain forum I unearthed MCA’s Marine Guidance Note 167, which helpfully quotes an judge who had commented on a 1995 collision case. He said “It is very probable that the use of VHF radio for conversation between these ships was a contributory cause of this collision, if only because it distracted the officers on watch from paying careful attention to their radar. I must repeat, in the hope that it will achieve some publicity, what I have said on previous occasions, that any attempt to use VHF to agree the manner of passing is fraught with the danger of misunderstanding. Marine Superintendents would be well advised to prohibit such use of VHF radio and to instruct their officers to comply with the Collision Regulations.



Some of the British vessels at the Battle of Jutland.

One of our two anniversaries this month has been the Battle of Jutland which took place on 31st May 2016. It was the last meeting of two opposing battle fleets and the only meeting of such vessels in the First World War, before the aircraft carrier and the submarine took over as the main pieces in Naval warfare.

At the time the British had access to the German naval codes and so were more or less aware of the German plan to lure the British fleet into the path of a group of  strategically placed submarines. Hence Admiral Jellico went to sea with the Grand fleet intending to rendezvous with Admiral Beatty’s battle cruiser squadron. He passed the German submarines before they were ready, and Beatty’s fleet met Admiral Hipper’s five battle cruiser’s before the latter expected it.

However in the ensuing action, during which Hipper withdrew and attracted the British towards the German fleet. During the initial engagement it is said that Admiral Beatty failed to take advantage of his larger calibre guns, instead waiting until he was within range of the German gunners before opening fire. In this initial action the British sustained their greatest losses, because it was claimed the German gunners were more skilled.

Eventually both main fleets met, the action involving 250 ships. During the battle the British lost six capital ships and eight destroyers, with a total of 6094 sailors killed. The Germans lost six major vessel and 2552 German seafarers lost their lives.

After the battle both sides claimed victory, but even though the British side had incurred most losses, the German surface ships were effectively contained and they altered their strategy to feature submarines.


The recent publication of new regulations for the operation of drilling units in the Gulf of Mexico prompts me to ask, whether anyone has done anything to improve their emergency response processes since the Deepwater Horizon, and although this seems like only the other day, more than six years have now passed since the disaster.  And it also occurs to me, in reading about accidents to merchant vessels, what extraordinarily complex objects mobile drilling units are. As well as floating in the sea (semi-submersibles) they engage in drilling holes in the seabed, and constantly move weights around on board, as well as loading and discharging cargo of all sorts. They therefore must be prepared for a variety of emergencies – we risk assessors have identified more than 20 major accident possibilities.

So when “preparing” for possible emergencies, with what systems was the Deepwater Horizon provided? Well, it may be remembered that the rig conformed to the 1989 MODU Code (A subset of IMO legislation). This allowed the fire pumps to be located in two of the six engine rooms, and for one of the six main engines to be designated as the emergency generator. In addition, water for the fire pumps was provided by salt water service pumps in the pontoons,  also requiring a main engine. Whether this system conformed with the regulations depends, in my view, on how you read them, but it is one thing to conform to the regulations, and as we are finding out, another to provide the best means of keeping our guys alive out there. It is probable that the pressure in the line between the pump in the pontoon, and the pump in the engine room was monitored and if it dropped the pump in the pontoon would automatically start up. A similar system in the FPSO P36 in Brazil in 2001, activated the pumps in the pontoon after an explosion in one of the columns had destroyed the pipework, and many tons of water were pumped into the rig until the pumps themselves were submerged and ceased to operate.

The Deepwater Horizon was provided with an extensive fire and gas detection system, but much of it was disabled to avoid waking people due to spurious activation. It is debatable as to whether having detection systems shut down anything is a good idea, but in any case none did on the rig and in addition there were no instructions for the control room staff as to what to do if they received an alarm.

The rig was provided with an emergency disconnect system which would have closed the BOP and disconnected the riser, therefore maybe preventing the egress of hydrocarbons from the well, and certainly saving the rig and everyone on board. It was operable by a single button in the Pilot House/Control Room, but it was not pressed until after the means of connecting it to the well had been blown apart. Similarly the investigators into the blowout on the West Vanguard in Norway in 1985 had been critical of the positioning of the means of disconnecting the riser from the well during that incident. It was by means of a lever, tied back with rope, in the Cellar Deck. And even though a brave man donned a dust mask and untied the rope and pulled the lever, the crew had no means of telling whether the riser had been disconnected or not.

In terms of systems, the Deepwater Horizon was not well prepared for emergencies. I had not intended to spend so much time writing about it, but it was well investigated, and so we know a lot about it, and it is apparent that much of what we are talking about is conformance with regulations, without any consideration as to whether such conformance is really likely to be any help if there is a catastrophic event, a point constantly made by the Coast Guard in their investigation into the event.

Typically, best practice for the provision of the emergency generator is that it should be situated as far from the main generators as possible, so that in the event of a gas release at deck level of a semi or a jack-up, the OIM can choose which system to keep running, taking into consideration the wind speed and direction. The generator should power many systems, including a fire pump (taking suction directly from the sea), the emergency lighting, the cement unit (if not self powered) and a ballast pump. But none of this is going to be any good if it is one of a raft of exploding machines. And here I will refer to a recommendation which I have recorded in my book “A Catalogue of Disasters”. It says: The power requirements during emergencies should be considered together with the control of possible sources of ignition. This recommendation was made by the investigators who reported on the blowout on the C.P.Baker in the Gulf of Mexico in 1964, 52 years ago. No doubt the people writing the regulations thought they had covered this, but no, the description allowed the rig designers to assign one of the main generators as the emergency generator.

From this point it is difficult to consider the equipment and structure of the rig without referring to the two explosions which effectively disabled it. The blasts more or less destroyed the accommodation, and some people were trapped under the wreckage. There was at least one muster station within the structure but it had been destroyed like most of the rest.

Readers not familiar with MODU Codes, and semi-submersible construction might be surprised about one of the requirements for “structural fire protection”. This says: ‘Exterior boundaries of superstructures and deckhouses enclosing accommodation, including any overhanging decks which support such accommodation, should be constructed to “A60” standard for the whole of the portion which faces and is within 30 metres of the centre of the rotary table.’  In many cases this has resulted in someone putting a compass in the centre of the rotary on the plan and drawing a circle at 30 metres – and what do you know, some of the spaces have protection, some partial protection and some none at all. And in the case of the Deepwater Horizon there seemed to be little protecting the accommodation from the blasts, even though the source was on the other side of the moonpool, but if one looks at the plans of the rig the Sack Store provided a connection between the two areas on the starboard side, so there-in may lie the answer.

And finally, as an example of lack of preparation for a major event I turn to one of my own experiences. We, doing a risk assessment, went round all the enclosed spaces, assessing them for the possibility of fire, explosion and flood. The engine room was a delight, containing a number of engines and absolutely nothing else. But of course the space was provided with extensive portable fire fighting equipment as well as a CO2 installed fire suppressant system in accordance with the regulatory requirements. So no problem there then, but we were then confronted with an auxiliary machinery space which contained all the stuff which the regulators had expected to find in the engine room. There were the two daily service fuel tanks, the fuel purifiers and a number of other auxiliary items, and hence the space was a serious fire risk, and if burnt out it would disable the rig, that is apart from risks to personnel. We designated the space as  being worthy of being provided with an installed fire suppressant system, but in our wash-up meeting the suggestion was discarded on the grounds that the rig already conformed with regulatory requirements. Conformance with the regulations could therefore have been counterproductive. Quelle surprise!


And the other anniversary which took place in May was the maiden voyage of the Queen Mary which took place on 27th of the month 80 years ago. And surprisingly the ship is still with us, tied up alongside in Long Beach, the port for Los Angeles. Apparently a consortium, of business men were able to bid more than the scrap price of the ship to preserve it.

At the start of its life, when it was under construction the hull seemed as it was never going to be completed, because of the Great Depression, but Cunard were able to persuade the government to contribute to the construction, and so it was completed, although one of the requirements was that Cunard should amalgamate with its rivals the White Star Line.

It was rumoured that the chief executive of the company went to see the King to ask if he could name the ship after Britain’s greatest queen – in his mind Queen Victoria, but the king thought he meant his wife, Queen Mary, and responded that he was sure his wife would be honoured. So Queen Mary it was, as opposed to all the other company ships whose names ended in “ia”.

The ship carried 2139 passengers and about 1100 crew and it continued to dash back and forth across the North Atlantic until 1967 by which time aircraft were beginning to replace ships as the means of travel from A to B.   



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