The news, two days ago as I write this, of the sinking of the car carrier Baltic Ace in the North Sea hit close to home. Memories of Zeebrugge came flooding back. That port is a major- perhaps even the most major- car carrier port in Northern Europe, and the hub for many car carriers, a dozen or so of which are always docked or anchored there. Many more are always around in the North Sea that lies close outside Zeebrugge. I, too, have sailed on one or two of those ships, on a Europe to Mediterranean to Turkey run, doing twenty ports a month, a schedule that is hardly unique for a car carrier in those waters.
The picturesque little village of Zeebrugge is also where I spent a few days in a small hotel on the beach six years ago, going for long walks along the deserted seafront waiting for my ship to come in. It is, unfortunately, also the port from which two similar vessels have sailed out and gone down. First, the ferry ‘Herald of Free Enterprise’ that capsized in 1987, killing almost two hundred. Now, the Baltic Ace, where eleven of her crew are presumed dead, drowned in the frigid waters of the North Sea after a collision with the ‘Corvus J.’
I have no doubt that we will soon hear the official version of the story of the incident. No doubt blame for the tragedy will be apportioned between the Baltic Ace and Corvus J; the managers of the Baltic Ace have already started the ‘human error’ refrain that is considered normal in the circumstances. What may be mentioned but not stressed- and certainly not acted upon by the industry- is what I believe is the underlying cause of these kinds of incidents, and even of the human error involved- Fatigue. With a capital F.
Like some other ships like small coasters and container feeders, car carriers are brutal ships for crews at the best of times. They therefore become unrelenting when they are on hectic runs in places like Europe; two ports in a twenty four hour period is not unusual, one port a day is normal, and a port after two days is a luxury. In areas like the North Sea- the busiest sea in the world- shortmanned crews are often fatigued into a zombie like state, shell-shocked by the vicious schedule and a system that is stacked against them.
Take, for example, the car carrier I was on last. Departing Rotterdam the previous afternoon, our schedule typically meant arrival Zeebrugge for the first shift early morning, about two hours manoeuvring up the channel and through the locks into the port (that seemed to be perennially buffeted with strong winds, any car carrier’s nightmare). Berthing. Unlashing of cars by ship’s crew started in the channel and continued during discharging (West European gangs are too expensive, better to roger the Asian or East European crews with overwork; after all, they are contractual workers with no long term liabilities for shipowners). Same for lashing cars that are being simultaneously loaded. Four hours later, shift berth (if Mohammad can’t some to the mountain…) and ditto the berth exercise for another four hours. Sail before evening. Another couple of hours in the channel getting out. Sail at night in the most congested sea in the world, probably in fog and rain and cold, reaching Southampton next day before noon. Go up the Solent, another few hours. Routine same as Zeebrugge, only thankfully no locks. Six hours alongside, then out again. And then Tilbury overnight, again same waters, reaching in the morning. And on. And on. And on.
In winter- now- visibility is often close to zero in the North Sea, English Channel and Western Mediterranean. The area also has, very often at this time, extremely bad weather with high waves, freezing spray, and nature’s other glories thrown in. For a Master to have to spend the entire transit from one port to the next on the bridge is not unusual. Slow steaming up and down, when ports are sometimes closed in bad weather and anchoring is not an option- Livorno used to be my personal nightmare- adds to the stress and fatigue.
Then there are port formalities and paperwork to be prepared for at sea and suffered in port. Crew changes. Stores, bunkers, sludge disposal, inspections, surveys, audits and repairs. Engineers can go crazy working against the clock keeping everything running and following the PMS system. Stopping at sea with even a minor breakdown is high tension time for everybody. Shore support is scanty because it is expensive. Deck staff goes crazy with cargo loading and lashing and running up and down eleven decks, not to speak of port papers, arrival and departure stations, checklists and the million things that every ship demands of every seafarer.
And ISPS requirements; don’t forget that. (Trick question, how do you deploy a total of five or six deck crew when you need one each for ISPS watch at the gangway, stern ramp and the side door, four for cargo lashing and monitoring, two to be resting before watch or before sailing, another one to handle the bunker barge and another two to handle stores? Answer, you throw the ‘rest period’ claptrap out the window, because if you followed that the ship would stop and probably never sail.)
Anybody who has been there and done that could tell you stories.
I have refused to sail more than just three or four months at a time since the late eighties, and so I had it easier on those car carriers too. I presume that the mainly Polish officers of the Baltic Ace had not contracted to do long stretches. (I also hope- for their sakes- they were not under the influence; sadly, the stringent zero alcohol policy followed by managers when it comes to Asians does not seem to apply equally robustly to Europeans.) Regardless, many officers do six months of this hellish tenure on car carriers today, day in and day out. Many of the crew- if they are Filipino, as some on the Baltic Ace were- do twice that. It is inhuman. It is made inhuman, actually, because owners and managers operate at stripped manning levels- promoting conditions that could be easily confused with slavery.
Seamen know that fatigue tastes like in the mouth; it is dry and metallic. They know it impairs judgement. They know they make more mistakes when they are tired. They also know that nobody acknowledges this; the industry needs fall guys after every Baltic Ace, not the truth. Leaving aside all other human foibles, claims of ‘human error’ make for good economics and ‘insurance sense’.
I am not here to tell you that there was no human error on either the Baltic Ace or the Corvus J. I am not even here to tell you that the Baltic Ace sank, tragically killing all those people, because of fatigue.
However, I am here to tell you that fatigue is the root cause of many a close shave and many an accident- and that some of my mistakes at sea could honestly be attributed to it. I am here to tell you that car carriers- those breadboxes with no vertical bulkheads in cargo spaces and with a single compartment design that can make the shebang go down in minutes if there is a breach in watertight integrity- are the last ships where you want to have fatigued crews.
And I am here to tell you that fatigue is behind much that is conveniently passed off as human error.