In this edition of the Ships and Oil Newsletter an item about the departure of the Hermod, a bit about collision risk management, how the grounding of the   CMA CGM Vasco de Gama  occurred, a very brief note about the loss of El Faro and what two ladies on a yacht were up to in the Pacific. 


In all the news of recent months I had allowed the departure of the Hermod to the breakers on the heavy lift ship Dockwise Vanguard, to be unrecorded on my website, just another step in the history of the offshore industry comes to a close. After many years during which heavy lift cranes were based on monohulls, latterly on tankers with consequent limitation in lifting capability the Hermod, an enormous semi-submersible with a lifting capability of 2000 tons using its two cranes arrived on the scene in 1978, to be closely followed by the Balder. Over time the Hermod was upgraded and the heaviest lift it performed is that of the Peregrino topsides in Brazil which weighed 6287 tonnes. Anyone who thinks that semi-submersible drilling rigs are large should have a look at these behemoths, indeed the whole process of offshore heavy lifting is extraordinary on the basis of the scale of the equipment used. Even when I was working at the installation of the Thistle topsides, on that occasion the contractors using a monohull, we were require to bring back the lifting slings to Peterhead, and they completely filled the deck of the ship. The difference that these things have made is to allow the oil company’s contractors to built the complete topsides for large platforms on the shore and then to have them lifted onto the jacket in one, rather than having the things constructed in little blocks as they had to do in the old days. The Heerema PR tells up that they are currently constructing a heavy lift crane with the capacity of 20,000 tons in the Far East, wow!


I am a recipient of a quarterly emailed news letter from Risktec, now a subsidiary of a German risk company. One of today’s articles spends some time discussing ship collision with fixed objects, which is dealt with by risk specialists by assessing the density of the traffic around the installation, and this particular presentation deals with the data available from AIS presentations. Past this point we may accept that there are different levels of risk for different installation. For instance the Magnus Platform, the most northerly in the UK sector must be subject to negligible risk, but the small platforms in the Southern North sea must be constantly in peril. For instance I once spent some weeks on a British registered semi-submersible drilling about 20 miles off the Israeli port of Ashdod. It was a very busy  place and as a result once the traffic had got used the presence of the rig they used it as a waypoint, and several ships a day passed through the buoy pattern. So what to do? The answer is, not a lot. In the UKCS where every installation is likely to have a standby boat, first of all that vessel will identify an approaching danger, and then it could be sent out to tell the errant vessel to alter course. There were once instructions for it to nudge the approaching craft out of the way until I and others told them not to be so stupid. In my years as a safety consultant I used to try to persuade my clients to install a radar set in the Ballast Control Room, so at least they would be able to see if a ship was likely to hit them, but since they had very few Ballast Control Operators with marine qualifications this approach was not often successful. So in the end using AIS data may tell you what the risks are, but they don’t tell you what to do about it.    


On 22nd August 2016 the extremely large container ship CMA CGM Vasco de Gama grounded at the side of the Thorn Channel during its approach to the port of Southampton. It was refloated without problems within hours and there were no injuries, but as a maritime accident the event was investigated by the UK Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB). Their report was issued on 26th October. It is obvious from the response of mariners on social media that most have not actually read the report, they have just had a look at the news information and many are saying that maybe the ships are getting too big for the ports to which they are assigned. It seems from what the MAIB have reported that for very large container ships making the approach to Southampton there is very little margin for error. To make the turn at the Brambles Bank a vessel of this size must first turn to port towards the south and then go hard astarboard and full ahead to turn into the channel. In this case the ship was too far to the north in the approach and even with full starboard rudder and full speed on the engines it did not manage the turn and grounded on the port side of the channel. For those not familiar with the operation of very large ships, including me, the report is a fascinating insight of the various means by which the information relating to the navigation of these vessels is presented. The pilots had their own system which was set up on the bridge, and the ship itself had two ECDIS presentations as well as radar, and a back-up on paper charts, but none of the presentations provided proper guidance for those in charge, but read the report, it is great stuff.



On the morning of October 1st 2015 the US flag combined container and ro-ro carrier El Faro floundered while on passage between Jacksonville and Puerto Rico, close to the eye of hurricane Joaquin with the loss of thirty three lives, the whole crew. The accident was investigated by a Marine Investigation Board and by the American National Transportation Safety Board, and the Marine Board’s report was published on 1st October 2017. It runs to 189 pages.

The report contains a complete description of everything which occurred before the sinking, mostly using the voice recordings from the Voice Data Recorder the VDR, and it is pretty chilling stuff, revealing as it does much of what the officers thought about their work, the operation of the ship in general and finally what should have been done to reduce the risks to the vessel as it approached the hurricane.

There are also those who might focus on the route taken by the ship and why it seems to have taken a course directly towards a hurricane despite weather reports and advice to the contrary. The captain had even received messages from a second mate who was not on the ship about the possible options for his route to Puerto Rico, although the report does not go into the reason why this second mate was interested while on leave – a very unusual approach for a man away from his ship. There are those on social media who have suggested that the reason the option of the “Old Bahama Channel” was not taken was because the captain had previously taken this route and had his knuckles rapped by the company. While the report does not produce any evidence of this, in his previous employment he had been sacked for using tugs to move the ship on one occasion, and there was an email included from one of his bosses asking to be informed about all decisions taken regarding the ship’s routing, which could have been a veiled threat.

There seemed to have been a number of underlying failings in the operation of the ship at all levels, and like others I tend to focus on the inspection processes which were undertaken in relation to the El Faro, this view based on the probability that if you can keep your ship weathertight then there is every possibility that it will remain afloat.

In the hours before the loss there was a deal of discussion on the bridge of the ship about the status of the hatches, and the ingress of water, which was considerable. There seems to have been a “scuttle” open on deck providing access to No 3 hold (to us Brits this is an access hatch), which was allowing water to get in. And this was not the only failing it seems, the hatch vents were, in all probability completely shot and the report has calculated that at quite moderate lists, water would get into the ship through defective vents.

In order to determine the likely state of the El Faro vent system the report includes some information about inspections of the sister ship El Yunque when three USCG travelling inspectors accompanied ABS on a Document of Compliance audit. They were there because it was thought that their presence might contribute to the findings of the El Faro accident Part of the DOC audit included a general walk-through of El Yunque, and the Traveling Inspectors requested that TOTE open up a starboard exhaust ventilation trunk serving cargo Hold 3 for inspection. The Travelling Inspectors noted severe corrosion within the ventilation trunk and they subsequently conducted testing of the soundness of the internal structure of the trunk. This test, which was performed in a typical manner using a hammer, resulted in a hole through baffle plating that was required to be watertight. As the Travelling Inspectors were discussing expansion of their inspection to additional ventilation trunks, the senior Travelling Inspector received a call from the Sector Jacksonville Commanding Officer. The Sector Commander, as the OCMI for the Port of Jacksonville, ordered the Travelling Inspectors to stop further inspection and hammer testing of El Yunque’s ventilation because it exceeded the scope of the audit.

During the investigation in to the loss of the El Faro the relevant ABS inspector was asked if other problems had been detected in the ventilation trunks of El Yunque. He said that the only trunk with a problem was that discovered by the Document of Compliance Inspection. However, further inspections of the El Yunque by Coast Guard Puget Sound Marine Inspectors found that there was long standing uncorrected wastage on the main deck and during inspections of the vents they observed missing gaskets, holes in vent ducts, holes in the side shell and more, and they requested all items to be added to the work list which the ship was currently undergoing. Thereafter TOTE, the owners, stopped all work and requested that the vessel be scrapped.

There were also potential problems with the lashing of the vehicles for which a standard technique was used, but which might not have conformed to the requirements of the international code for the operation of ro-ros. And certainly in the last hours of the ship’s life there were vehicles floating about in the holds and the possibility of many commercial trailers being on the move. Also there is an inference in the report that there was something not quite right about the stability of the El Faro. Before the ship sailed a photograph was taken of it leaning on the quay, something it was said, it did not usually do, and out there in worsening weather the ship was listing in one direction or the other depending on the impact of the wind on the ship’s side, and containers. And finally possibly due to lack on oil lubrication the engine stopped. Once that had happened the ship was at the mercy of the storm.

The VDR also contains details of the third mate’s and the second mate’s requests that the captain come to the bridge and look at the weather forecast, the first request before midnight, but it seems that the captain never came up. It is honestly difficult to understand why he took no notice of these requests, even though the requests were based in some way on erroneous weather forecasts, which the investigators go into in some detail. There is also quite a lot about the presence or not of an anemometer, which would have prevented the officers of the watch from being able to establish the wind speed. And I have wondered about that, but it may be that since the hurricane season is limited and the resulting wave heights are probably less than the heights caused by similar wind speeds, say, in the North Atlantic it would be difficult to estimate wind speed from the sea conditions.

There were 35 recommendations, but in the view of many none of them are really capable of improving things out there for American registered vessels. What about the Marine Electric? they say.


Back in May this year two ladies and their pet dogs left Hawaii on a fifty foot sailing craft, and after five months have been picked up about 900 miles from the coast of Japan by a US Navy ship. They said that their mast was damaged during a storm soon after leaving their home port and that after a while their engine failed, and subsequent to that they tried on many occasions to attract the attention of passing ships, to no avail. However on October 24th they were sighted by a Taiwanese fishing vessel and steps were taken to rescue them. They had apparently continued on their course which was intended to take them to Tahiti, for two months, missing that island group, and being unable to find a suitable place to land thereafter, sustaining themselves on the twelve months worth of provisions they had taken with them. But as the days have passed doubts have been cast on the story, although it is difficult to see what they would gain from telling lies. At the very least from the photo of the yacht taken by the US Navy the sails are furled and look to be in a good state, and curiously the marine growth on the port side seems to indicate that the boat has spent a long time with a port list. There are also those who suggest that a 50 foot sailing boat could not have carried a year’s worth of food, particularly for the two quite large dogs, and also the storm which they claim gave them problems did apparently not take place accordng to meteorological experts, and the ladies look so well after their prolonged ordeal, but they seem to have travelled quite a long way in any case. Could they have been living ashore somewhere for ages? And again, what is the point? Who knows.


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