In this edition of the Ships and Oil Newsletter an item about the loss of the submarine ARA San Juan, the release of the “Chennai Six”, maybe the final misjudgement about the Prestige, an article about my investigation into the John S McCain accident and the loss of the DB29 back in 1991.


The Sophie Siem with the American rescue module on board.

Those of us familiar with the marine environment on the surface can only be distressed by what is today accepted as the loss of the Argentine submarine San Juan, which had ceased to be in touch with its shoreside management a couple of weeks ago. The submarine was built in 1985 in Germany and apparently had a major overhaul in 2014, the engine work at the time is said to have required the ship to be cut in half. I don’t have any technical details, but it does not look very big, a view possibly confirmed by the quite small crew of 44 personnel. Some information revealed by the Argentine Navy suggests that it was taking water in through the snorkel and that this resulted in a battery fire. It has not been found despite the presence of a large international fleet of search vessels. There have been a couple of British warships and a US Navy team embarked on the District Offshore IMR ship Skandi Patagonia, and a further US Navy team are embarked on the Siem offshore vessel Sophie Siem. This ship is a VS 470 built in 2006 in Norway, one of a number of the type owned by the company. We have seen a photo of the American rescue module on the back of a truck in the media and now on the stern of the Sophie Siem I think. Indeed back a few years ago I was at an offshore support conference and recollect that there were people from the British Navy asking for volunteers (you might say) who would be prepared to have the fittings for an A-Frame added to the stern of their vessels, so that in the event that the British submarine rescue module needed to be deployed there would be ships available to carry it and lower it over the stern. Fortunately this service has not so far been required by the British Navy.


On and off over the last few years we have been hearing about a group of seafarers and others who have ben jailed in India for being involved in fire-arms illegalities. They were the crew and guards on board a ship called the Seaman Guard Ohio There were ten crew and 25 “security guards”, of various nationalities, and including six British former soldiers. The idea of the service was that the guards could be embarked on board merchant ships which were going to make their way southward to the Cape of Good Hope, or one assumes into the Red Sea, both routes being subject to pirate attack. The ship was owned by a company called Advenfort and had run short of fuel. They had been arrested in October 2013 and found guilty later of fire-arms offenses, apparently something like gun running, or arms smuggling. They were jailed but subject to appeal, and this week they have been freed, much to the joy of their relatives and friends back here in UK. There are those who think that the ship was really smuggling arms but really the presence of 25 ex-soldiers belies that possibility. Added to which there were apparently only 35 fire-arms on board, hardly a hoard.


A couple of weeks ago the Spanish Supreme Court awarded the country of Spain $1.9 billion for the environmental damage done to the country’s coastline by the sinking of the Prestige. Well, who’d have thought it? After what seem to have been years of misdirected blame we have got to this point. So going back to the event which you may remember occurred in 2002, the captain of the ship Apostolos Mangouras determined that it was unlikely to survive out there in the adverse weather it was experiencing in the Atlantic to the west of the Spanish coastline, and so he asked to be allowed to enter a port of refuge. The minister who refused his request was the current prime minister Mariano Rajoy. Instead he was directed to take the ship out into deep water where it sank and subsequently the coastline of Spain and Portugal was inundated with boiler fuel. Of course, if you had to choose the worst possible oil product to deal with it would be this fraction of oil production, the bottom end of the refining process which requires heating coils in the tanks to keep the stuff moving. The unfortunate captain who should actually have been retired, was prevented from leaving the country and last year sentenced him to two years in jail. He is now 81 years old. The Supreme Court managed to sentence the captain in a trial which took only one day, without him being present. Failing to learn from their mistakes, the Spanish took a burning fishing vessel out into deep water from the Canaries in 2015 with subsequent environmental effects, albeit not so serious as the results of the Prestige sinking.


The Helm and Lee Helm on a Arleigh Burke destroyer. Having read and reread the reports I cannot quite square this photo, which is from the Northrop Grumman website, with the Integrated Bridge actually installed on the John S McClain, because the Lee Helm seems to have engine controls. 

At the beginning of this month the US Navy issued what was described as a Consolidated Review of the recent accidents to US warships, which were numerous, and considered to be worthy of discussion due to the collisions of the USS Fitzgerald and the USS John S McCain with merchant ships, with the unfortunately loss of the lives of seventeen sailors.

The issuing of the report made me decide that I would try to develop a summary of one of the accidents for the website, to inform my readers about the possible problems the US Navy have, and as well as reading the reports many times, and also reading what others have made of the accident I have followed the interaction of the contributors to the gCaptain forum.

It has not been an easy process and I have discovered a few things. The John S McCain is one of a class of destroyers which are being refitted with a new bridge operating system, developed and marketed by Northrop Grumman, and I have discovered why the ships are called “Destroyers”. So for those who like me have just accepted the word and not thought about it further, here’s the explanation. Back in the early days of the First World War, when it was intended that the battleships of the British and German navies would face up to each other and fire their very big guns until someone’s armour was penetrated, fast torpedo boats were added to the mix. And these  craft were capable of avoiding the shells from the big guns and launching torpedoes which might sink a battle ship. A very low value asset was therefore capable of sinking a very high value one. So the navies introduced “Torpedo Boat Destroyers” to protect the big ships, and as destroyers that’s what these ships still do, the John S McCain being one of the ships protecting the aircraft carriers of the Seventh Fleet.

The second thing I discovered was the origins of the term “Lee Helm” which is much used in the various reports, since this is the position on the bridge of an American warship which, it seems, has been generally used to operate the engine room telegraph and then later the actual engine controls when these were available on the bridge. But back in the days of sail the helmsman stood on the weather side of the wheel and carried out the instructions of the watch officer, however they were offered which could relate to a compass course or to one relating to the wind. And in addition to the helmsman the “Lee Helm” was a man who stood on the lee side of the wheel and added his muscles to the requirement to turn the wheel. He was generally not as skilled as the helmsman.

It just seemed to me when I started looking at this accident that the main problem was the human/machine interface i.e. what the console from which the ship was guided was doing, or what the operators were doing with it, and I suggested that this might be the case on the gCaptain website, to which mariners of all persuasions contribute.

Some people seemed to believe that the console was no problem at all, as long as those on the bridge knew how to operate it, and how could they not? All you had to do was follow instructions – at least some of them on the very screens they were looking at.

Many of the Americans seemed to have the view that much of the problem related to the number of people on the bridge, and there were quite a few. It seemed to me that there were thirteen but opinions differ, and some writers have used the diagram provided in the reports to count the numbers present and not present, but I can’t help thinking that this diagram was intended to show people which positions would be saved by the installation of the IBNS, the Integrated Bridge Navigation System.

There is a view also that no matter how many people were on the bridge it was up to someone to inform the captain about what was happening, not least the CIC the Combat Information Centre, and was this support service just telling those on the bridge what they knew already?

We should say now that the commanding officer and the Executive officer of the ship have been sacked the actual press release says “relieved of their duties and reassigned” which really means side-lined in the Navy I suppose. More senior officers have also been “reassigned” including the commanding officer of the Seventh Fleet.

If you have a look through the timeline it really appears firstly that the commanding officer did not know what was going on, or more realistically, he did not know how his ship was currently relating to the other vessels in his immediate area, said by the Navy to be lack of “situational awareness”, and secondly no-one else really knew what was going on, because surely if they did someone would have warned him.

But I’m trying to get back to basics here, and in my description of the accident for which I read the Navy reports, and I can’t imagine a system on which steering could be “lost”, which apparently it was. I have exchanged views with American mariners who have been quite protective of the Navy system, some of whom have suggested that all ships are provided with multiple positions at which the ship can be controlled, and here we might be getting to the fundamental differences between Navy and Merchant ships. I think I can say that all merchant ships are provided with autopilots, even one I was on built in 1938 had one but it does not seem that US Navy ships have autopilot, so the helmsman will always be at the wheel. And using the IBNS he was supposed to operate the engines as well, maybe using a touch screen.

If we once more have a look at the average merchant ship, when at sea the autopilot will be doing the steering and no-one will touch the engine controls – probably on pain of death. Then when the ship arrives in a port someone will take the covers off some sort of combination steering and engine control system, often with thrusters to hand and will drive the ship into its alongside position, guided to an extent by the pilot and sometimes with the assistance of tugs. It is likely that as long as the ship is not in autopilot the steering will be operational without additional input, but usually buttons must be pressed to engage the engine controls. The someone doing the driving will quite often be the captain, but we can’t imagine an American warship commander actually putting a hand to any of the controls.

You can read my review of the American reports on the "ACCIDENTS" page.


On the last day of October this year a crane barge, the DB-1 sank in shallow water in the Gulf of Mexico. When I started searching for a bit more information about the accident I came up with stuff about the loss of the DB29, a derrick barge owned by McDermott back in August 1991. The barge had been laying pipe for an offshore oilfield in the South China Sea and at the time of the sinking was on passage being towed by the tug Typhoon. What little information is available is provided by the Bradford Telegraph and Argus which reported on the coroner’s court convened to determine the cause of death of one of the divers who had been in sat during the passage. He and three other divers were lost as well as a further 22 crew members. The evidence provided to the court included some from a man who had travelled from New Zealand. The witness seemed to be suggesting that the barge had been overloaded, and that it was being towed, having no propulsion of its own, to a place of safety where it could wait out the typhoon. But it seems that under deck spaces began to fill up with water, and the deck cargo began to move about. Frustratingly for marine people with an interest, these witnesses are essentially amateurs whose view of the misfortune is conditioned by their lack of technical knowledge. Probably the management of this object would have just seen the loss as bad luck, but as usual it is more likely to have been the result of lack of knowledge of the marine environment. 


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