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Why Ships Really Collide?

Posted by on in Maritime Blog
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The shipping industry, from the mariner’s viewpoint, is rather like a set of Chinese boxes. Open one and there is another inside and another inside that, with each more remote and more difficult to deal with. Every casualty produces a flurry of documents, rules, advice on how not to collide and the inevitable ‘we fail to understand pronouncements. Blame, of course, is apportioned without going too deeply into the boxes and we settle down to await the next inevitable incident.

 There are too many people in this industry with inadequate professional knowledge and little command experience trying to dictate the rules of the profession. Thus far too many false premises are allowed to be promulgated without their veracity being challenged.

The proliferation of safety departments especially in the larger companies has not helped towards a sensible evaluation. All too often, these safety departments have as their prime concern the protection of the company that employs them rather than the interests of those at sea; they act more as internal company police forces.

Naturally, as soon as we mention safety at sea we think about collisions and the near-misses most of us have encountered at some period in our careers. So I shall take collisions at sea as the prime subject of this blog and start trying to open a few of these Chinese boxes. 


Lookout levels



One strange anachronism remains as a vestige of shipping acts of the distant past; the level of lookout assigned continues to differentiate between day and night, thus completely ignoring the advances of electronic aids available today. In terms of the lookout, this differentiation is a nonsense: both day and night require the same vigilance. If a lookout is required at night, then one is required during the day.

It is very rare for a watchkeeper to detect a ship or a danger to navigation before the radar does, while at night the OOW keeps a better watch on the radar. In contrast, the bridge tends to be far busier during the day, with extra tasks and distractions.

Therefore there may be a far stronger case for lookouts to be appointed during the day than the night.If the shipping regulations demand that a lookout, in addition to the OOW, is essential, and I have no disagreement with this, we must recognise that this must be maintained continuously. Thus the duty lookouts should not be allowed to leave the bridge for any reason – which then creates the need of reliefs for these lookouts. No ship is manned to do this or if it is, the interference caused by maintenance duties would prohibit such a watch-keeping system.

Under present regulations on a well manned and managed ship, the watchkeeping system should be flexible, allowing the master to make adjustments commensurate with the weather, traffic, occupation of the ship (such as coastal, ocean, drifting or anchored) and most important, the experience of the officers and ratings under his command. However there will always be collisions, purely because those on the bridge controlling the ships are human beings and not robots;thus human fallibility will continue to be the major cause of such incidents for the foreseeable future. 

When we examine the actions that can be taken to alleviate these human failures, the limitations of these actions must also be considered. Broadly we can list these as political, financial and human. 


The ideal situation



Let us start with the ideal situation. First, the ship will be properly manned. This means the ship can man the bridge at alltimes with a watchkeeping officer and aproperly trained seaman lookout. Fewships today can claim even this.

These six seafarers should be the dedicated navigation team of the ship and required to perform no duties at sea not directly connected with the navigation of the vessel. No ship today can claim this.

They should be highly motivated, of goodmorale, properly trained, with certificationfrom recognized and respected governmentdepartments. Before joining a vessel withnavigation and control equipment withwhich an officer is not familiar, a course insuch equipment should be undertaken. Awatchkeeping course should be undertakenby ratings that are to be employed aslookouts and so are by default, part of thenavigation team. Whatever they are beingtrained in currently, it does not includeacting as a lookout.

These last two criteria may seemextraordinarily ambitious yet all of the above are normal in the air industry. If such criteria could be instituted on a worldwide scale, the incidents of near miss and collision would dramatically decline. But of course, this will not be done. 



The prevailing situation


  • Today the second or third officer is recruited through a manning agency from a third-world country with certificates that no one can check as, if they are sighted at all by the employing company, they will begin photostat form. Whereas in the past we had economic refugees as seamen, now they also come as officers who do not want to be on the ship or work for that particular company; in fact they do not want to be at sea. But the pay, although poor by international standards, is better than anything that they can achieve at home. There are many better qualified officers available but the owners or managers will not pay for them.
  • The officer will be flown out to the ship, which will often be sailing the day he joins, direct from a long flight. The chief officer has been working for 16 hours without a break and with cargo loading coming to an end, has no time to show him round. The ship sails – and that evening he is on watch in traffic with navigation and control equipment he does not know, and with a lookout who cannot speak the same language and has no idea of how to perform his duties. The real wonder is that there are not more incidents.
  • In addition, ISM has added considerably to the workload thus reducing the navigational vigilance. All too often it never minds the watch, fill in the paper.

 Why does all of this happen and why is it allowed to carry on irrespective of the STCW and ISM initiatives? We now must open a few more boxes.  



The political dimension

  • With the STCW Convention, the standardization of training and certification was meant to herald in a new dawn. Of course, no one really believed that especially the signatories; however it was a brave attempt at least to try to get some control over certification and training. Regrettably, while examination requirements may be the same, the examination protocols are not.
  • STCW  led to adverse effects on standards as it reduced the examination standard to the lowest common denominator, thus reducing the value of the certificates of traditional maritime nations from professional to the technical standard. They also allowed those holders of certificates from nations with low standards and corrupt administrations to sail legally on all vessels and worse, to be able to trade low-value certificates for high-value ones(by getting there COC endorsed), once again debasing the value of certificates that have been traditionally highly regarded. The result has been an overall lowering of standards and qualified officers leaving the sea as their professional qualifications and their value was debased and their salaries reduced.

Professional values were surrendered for the sake of political expediency.Did this happen in the air industry? Of course not; in fact, the Joint Aviation Authority (JAA), chose the highest standards from the participation nations in their regulations, so the resulting standards of qualifications improved. Why, therefore, was it necessary to have lower standards at sea while opting for higher standards in the air?

For the officers from the traditional maritime nations, and indeed for the safety of ships and seamen in general, STCW was a disaster. 


The financial dimension

  • The creed of the majority of owners and managers is the lowest pay and conditions, the lowest manning possible and the maximum profit.
  • A deep-sea foreign going ship of 500 tons, voyaging across the Atlantic in winter, can beman with just the master and one officer, while the number of ratings carried can be decided by the flag state on the evidence of details of the ship submitted by the owner or manager. Yet that ship can have a speed of 15 knots and at that speed, can punch into a far larger ship, sinking it in minutes.
  • The majority of the ships steaming around today are undermanned. Many have language problems on the bridge and internally. If that is not a worrying statement, then the sterile conditions prevailing on many ships, with crews of mixed nationalities often existing in a system of voluntary apartheid, poor pay and conditions and a shoreside personnel department that is purely a hiring firing agency all contribute to a general indifferent attitude and poor morale.

It is unfair to simply blame the captains as most of those in the office ashore, including those ex-seafarers and the safety departments, know about the problems and do nothing to alleviate them. This, of course, should not stop captains from supporting the correct treatment of their crews but with the gradual erosion of the master’s powers over the years, his little remaining authority is seldom recognized by the operating office.

If the master of a ship feels that the manning of his ship causes him concern regarding the safety of the vessel, or if he feels that the lack of a common language on board interferes with safe watchkeeping, what are his alternatives?

We all know the professional answer but if the master refuses to sail, what is there to support him? In the international shipping world, there is no union to come to his rescue. In truth, he is on his own against all the guns a large shipping company can bring against him. The master sails, regardless of the state of his officers and crew.

Fatigue is a human condition but the causes are financial. The first cause is the chronic under-manning on most ships today. It is not uncommon for bridge officers to work more than 16 hours a day in port with the chief officer sometimes sailing without having slept for 24 hours.

Yes, there are forms stating the required hours of work and the forms to fill saying how many hours have been worked but we all know that these are mostly falsified. Where is the support for those who fill them in correctly or refuse to sail? There is none. The owners and operators know this perfectly well.

Now let us say that wonder of wonders, a ship truthfully completes the forms and finds that it cannot sail, and even more startling, advises the port of this. I wonder if there is any oil or bulk terminal in any port that will accept the ship remaining alongside after completion in order for the crew to rest before sailing? Or any port that has set aside berths that those ships can be moved to for this purpose? The argument that the ship could go and the anchor is ludicrous as not only would the fatigued officers have to go about their duties unberthing, but then would have to do anchor watches, thus defeating the purpose.

Undermanning coupled with the incompetent crew putting a greater workload on the competent causes fatigue.Rather than producing meaningless paper trails, we should be tackling these issues.

As long as we have people on the bridges, there will be accidents. We must do all we can to alleviate the problem but the constant flow of watchkeeping advice from a myriad of sources is worthless until the basic underlying causes are solved.

Once ships sailed through areas like the Singapore Strait and the Dover Strait without the master on the bridge and without routing. It takes a very foolhardy master today to leave the junior officer alone on the bridge in such places, even with routing and vessel traffic services. We have a right to expect that the officer on the bridge should be competent but by whose standards?  

The air industry again does things a little differently. If an owner or operator wishes to employ a foreign national to fly its planes, certificates and experience must be submitted to the CAA for their perusal before he can be employed, all his documents. They will then decide if and what examinations are required prior to flying the aircraft. Why should the shipping industry not do the same?

The continuing increasing workload caused by planned maintenance, updating more and more publications, completion of ISM requirements, safety officer duties and the latest security officer duties have been added to the ship with no increase in manning. Further, these duties always fall on the bridge officers, as if there were no other officers on board.  As the extra workload increases, more extraneous work is done on watch on the bridge as, understandably, officers are reluctant to complete their watch and then go to work for hours in their cabins.

A better way?

To recap, most ships are chronically undermanned for the tasks they are required to perform.

  • The manning assessments by flag state based on ship tonnage and acceptance of operators’ statements of crew requirements are unreliable and unacceptable.
  • The qualifications and training of many officers are deficient for their professional requirement and their designated responsibilities.
  • The falsification of hours of rest documents is common and expected by many companies and ignored by agencies whose job it is to ensure their enforcement. The result is that many ships are sailing from ports with officers suffering from fatigue.
  • There is no adequate support for masters who try to ensure that their ships are properly manned and that all required safety procedures are followed.
  • The ports feel divorced from the issues of fatigue and have no interest in the ship’s safety issues except those that interfere with the port and the speed of turn around.
  • The lookout regulations are out of date and must accept that day and night require the same vigilance.
  • Bridge seamen require specialized training as lookouts.
  • We need a dedicated bridge team unhindered by other duties.

When trying to deal with these problems, you often come against the old excuse, flag state. If the flag state allows the ship to sail with a master a monkey and an organ grinder, it must be safe as the flag state approves. Who are we to disagree? Such an illogical rebuttal to any reasoned professional case continues as the excuse for not dealing with problems at sea.  Over the years, my many colleagues working within these official bodies have expressed their concern on these matters but of course, are powerless to act.

I have often wondered why the insurance companies are so uninterested in the root causes of our problems. The only explanation I have ever been given is that the costs of the accidents are factored in. How does you factor live? You would think that charterers would be interested, but they are not.

If, then, governments are satisfied that the flag state solves all problems; charterers and insurance companies are uninterested; unions, associations and professional bodies have no power to act, then owners and operators will continue to ignore all professional reasoning, and collisions will continue.

There has to be a better way to organize the operation of ships at sea than the present regime.

Credits: Captain Michael Lloyd,FNI



<div class="cStream-Attachment-inner-custom"><div><div style="float:left; width: 130px;margin-right: 12px;float: left;color: transparent;"><a href="/…; target="_blank"><img… style="width: 200px;height: auto;" /></div><div style="width: 75%;float: left;"><div style="font-weight: bold;font-size: 18px;margin: 0 auto 2px auto;"><a href="/…; title="…; target="_blank">6 Indian sailors killed, 6 missing in Kerch strait ship accident</div><div style="margin: 0 auto 8px auto;">Two fuel ships carrying Indian and Turkish crew members caught fire in Kerch Strait</div></div></div></div>


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