“Only a fool learns from his own mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others.”
– Otto von Bismarck
You might be tempted to assume that the above photo (courtesy of ShipSpotting.com and Vitaliy Kharchenko) is of the Comoros-flagged SL Star. That feeder container vessel capsized in Bandar Abbas, Iran on March 19th during cargo operations with up to three casualties reported. Strangely, though, the photo is of the Comoros-flagged Mona, another feeder container vessel, after capsizing in the UAE port of Sharjah in August 2017.
There are remarkable similarities between the two incidents. According to IMO GISIS Marine Casualties and Incidents, Mona capsized, “…due to wrong unloading the containers in conjunction with wrong calculations of loading fresh water and discharging ballast water…” After SL Star capsized, it was reported that, “…discrepancies between dockers and crew led to stability loss, either cargo shifted or was wrongly loaded…”
When the general cargo vessel, Deneb, capsized in Algeciras, Spain in June 2011, an extensive investigation was conducted and report produced by the Spanish Standing Commission for Maritime Accident and Incident Investigations (CIAIM). The investigation revealed numerous shortfalls in the crew’s actions when dealing with container stowage plan changes, but also revealed the potential dire consequences of under-declaring the weight of containers.
During the loading of containers on Deneb, supports (referred to as elephant feet) were required to be used to level out the container stacks in the holds as she was a general cargo vessel, not fully cellular. Longshoremen at the terminal eventually refused to use these, as they considered them to be unsafe. The stowage plan was modified, which resulted in these containers being stowed on deck instead.
As loading continued, Deneb had increasingly large angles of heel as a container was set down. It came to the point where the deck watch officer instructed the terminal to alternate sides of the vessel with each container. This alone should have been one of the cues and clues that all was not well with the vessel’s stability. Another cue and clue that was being investigated immediately prior to the capsizing was that forward draft was well in excess of calculated.
These cues and clues were not recognized by the relatively inexperienced deck officers on Deneb. Their combined experience (Master, chief mate and second mate) was a grand total of 15 months. It was the chief mate’s first container ship experience and the second mate’s first job as a deck officer.
Ironically, just a month or so ago, several of us were sitting at the galley table discussing the capsizing of Deneb and recounting our own near misses or close calls with diminished stability from over or underweight containers. The deck officers in attendance recounted how the vessel had heeled when the tugs pulled off the berth on one ship or the vessel heeled over in a turn and didn’t come back upright on another ship. These comments were generally followed with, “…and then I filled the double bottoms with ballast…” which is a good response when poor stability is encountered.
It’s sea stories such as these or the reading of reports such as the excellent one on Deneb’s capsizing that can help our younger or less-experienced crew members recognize the cues and clues of poor stability or overweight/underweight containers before actually encountering them. It will be interesting to read the report on the capsizing of SL Star. Unfortunately, that will likely never be possible. While flag states are required under the Casualty Investigation Code to report casualties to the IMO and conduct an investigation, there are no requirements to make those reports public. And, like the missing report on the capsizing of Mona, there will likely not be a published report on SL Star from the Comoros flag state.
If we want to make the maritime industry a safer place, we need to stop making the same errors and mistakes. Part of that is coming clean with the near misses or incidents with which we (personal, vessel, company, flag state, industry segment) have been involved. If we keep mandating that people make their own mistakes from which to learn, we are going to keep seeing them over and over.
When, where and who do you think will be the next to capsize?