This was an article commissioned by Safety at Sea International and published in a slightly shortened form.

In January 1993 the tanker Braer left Mongstad loaded with 84,000 tonnes of Norwegian crude, bound for Quebec. The ship headed out into the teeth of southerly gale and made slow progress towards the Atlantic. During the 4th January the officers noticed that some pipes which were stowed on the afterdeck had broken free and were hammering back and forth across the deck as the ship rolled. The captain was informed but he decided that nothing should be done until the weather improved. Later in the day the boiler which generated the steam for heating the heavy fuel used by the main engine failed, resulting in a decision to put the main engine on diesel. Early on 5th the main engine stopped. The fuel had been found to be contaminated, and the engineers had, for hours, been trying to clear the diesel settling and service tanks of water. The engine problem turned into an emergency as the ship drifted towards the southern tip of the Shetland Islands, and at 1119 the ship grounded at Garths Ness. The water was found to have entered the fuel tanks through vents damaged by the loose pipes on the afterdeck.

On 11th November 2006 the 74,000 dwt tanker FR8 Venture shipped two large waves over the bow, which resulted in the deaths of two ABs and serious injuries to one ordinary seaman. The ship had been engaged in ship to ship transfers in Scapa Flow and, on completion of the work, headed out into the Pentland Firth while the crew were still securing the deck. The event was investigated by the UK Marine Accident Investigation Branch which not surprisingly determined that the deck should have been secured before the ship left sheltered waters. The owners subsequently modified their Operations Manual to ensure that the decks of their tankers would be secured or unsecured in such a manner that the crew would be, as far as possible, protected.

More obvious results of heavy weather were the total losses of the Prestige and the Erica, and a paper produced for the European Commission by the Department of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering of Strathclyde University determined that heavy weather was a significant factor in 46% of incidents resulting in structural failure on tankers.

The captain of the FR8 Venture is now aware that he should not have left sheltered waters before securing the deck and has probably never let anything like that happen to him again, and it is to be hoped that the masters of other vessels of the same company have taken some notice of the change to the Operations Manual. However, one would think that the ability to deal with heavy weather would be one of the skills necessary to command a ship. After all, it is something seafarers have to deal with throughout their working lives, and if shipmasters do not have the skills to safeguard their crew and to minimise the possibility of damage to their vessels, is survival only due to luck?

It is likely that the approach taken to adverse weather differs between those in command of small ships, and those in command of large ones. Small ships will not survive adverse weather unless they are kept watertight and weathertight, and this knowledge is a considerable incentive for the captains and the crews. Large ships, and most tankers are large, some of them very large, may be relying on their shear size to see them through, although this faith seems to be frequently found wanting when very large ships limp into port with parts of their bows missing.

Doubtless the Department of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering at Strathclyde University could determine the types of forces to which a very large tanker would be subject in a variety of weather conditions, but it is reasonable to assume that if the ship is pressing on in extreme weather, damage is more likely. If this is obvious, perhaps we should revisit the reports provided by the masters of damaged ships, claiming that they had been taken by surprise, by freak waves. When asked what the weather conditions were like at the time they will usually say that they were already battling through a force 10. The chances are that they were going as fast as they could – and this depends on the size of the engines not on the strength of the hull.

Most papers on the subject of human error, make the assumption that the ISM code has had, or will have, a beneficial effect, and that over years the number of accidents of all sorts will be reduced. They also suggest that as new ships are built more safety factors will be incorporated thereby reducing the possibility of human error. The FR8 Venture and the Braer were included here to illustrate the fact that in both cases a specific approach to adverse weather would have prevented the accidents. It is pretty obvious that if the captain of the FR8 Venture had considered the possibility of waves climbing over the bow of the ship, he would not have left shelter while the crew were still securing the anchors. The MAIB also suggested that possibly there would still have been scope for him to turn away from the weather until the work was completed. One must assume that he thought that his ship was sufficiently large for it to be unaffected by the five metre seas running outside in the Pentland Firth. The terrible environmental effect of the grounding and break-up of the Braer at Garths Ness could have been prevented simply by ensuring that the steel sections on the afterdeck had been properly secured. The report into the incident also suggests that they could possibly have been re-secured if the vessel had been hove too on a heading which would have allowed the crew to gain access to the area. Not to have taken this action, in the words of the investigators, “suggests a fundamental lack of basic seamanship” .

That’s all very well, some might say, but these remarks can be made only with the benefit of hindsight, but this is not so. It is important for owners and managers to identify the potential risks to their vessels and to provide masters with appropriate means to deal with them. The possibility of loss of integrity in adverse weather is a known hazard, so therefore suitable training and guidance should be provided to prevent its realisation.

The training and examinations for certificates of competency deal with navigation, prevention of collision, stowage and carriage of cargo, aspects of ship-handling shipmaster’s business and many other topics, but do not address survival in heavy weather. The examining boards will say that a certificate of competency is a basic qualification, and that it is up to a vessel’s managers to provide the further training which will make ship’s officers capable of operating it. In most cases this will result in them learning how to deal with adverse weather, together with all the other skills specific to that vessel type, “on the job”.

In another paper for the European Commission, entitled “The Human Element as a Factor in Marine Accidents” the authors have analysed a large number of different types of marine accidents and had the following to say about what they describe as “external factors”:

Although several of the accidents reviewed are due to external factors such as bad weather, it is fair to say that in most such cases it was the combination of the external factor and the human factor that led to the accident. For instance, if the Master took the proper measures (such as reduce speed, change course, go to a safe place, send distress signal, etc), the accident might not have occurred, even though the weather was bad.

And this is probably the point. One could look upon adverse weather as an act of god, visited on the ship as it goes about its lawful business, ploughing a furrow through the ocean between the port of departure and the destination, in which case the only thing to do is to press on at best speed. Or else the occasional storms which beset any ship on passage could be looked on in the same way as sandbanks or islands, or port approaches. These things require positive action such as alterations of course or reductions in speed. And here it has to be faced. The captain will just have to fill in the form, to let the charterers know why the date and time of his arrival is going to be different from that estimated at the time of departure.

In the words of SOLAS Regulation 10-1

‘The master shall not be constrained by shipowner, charterer or any other person from taking any decision which, in the professional judgement of the master, is necessary for safe navigation, in particular in severe weather and in heavy seas.’

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