May 28, 2015

Selective learning

Maybe it is time to stop dishing out inane ‘lessons learnt’ when it comes to accident or incident reports. I understand that this is convenient and makes for good economics with insurers and all, but enough is enough, don’t you think?

Just one case in point- the UK’s Marine Accident Investigation Branch has brought out a Safety Digest for the year. One of the reports there pertains to two ro-ro vessels that broke their moorings at different times in an unnamed European port in high winds; one grounded on the opposite bank with some damage to her ramp (before she was eventually re-berthed) while the other was brought under control quicker with the use of tugs and thrusters. 

Under the ‘Lessons Learnt’ section of the report, the MAIB repeats many shop-soiled bromides as if these were something that crews were unaware of, or were not following for the most part. “Keeping a high sided vessel alongside in strong winds was (is?) always going to be a challenge,” it informs us. It goes on to use shatteringly painful (to a seaman) terms like ‘appropriate precautions’, ‘contingency options,’ avoiding being ‘lulled into a false sense of security’ and ‘confirmation bias’. It tells crews to “prepare a contingency plan” (Oh no, not another one, I hear the groans) which sets limits that trigger a response and avoid using selftensioning on the winches in high wind ports. And to (aha!) check moorings frequently.

Let me give MAIB- and some others ashore who concur with this rubbish- the perspective of just one guy who has sailed in command of maybe two dozen ro-ro babies all over the world, including a couple of them doing around 20 ports a month in Europe and the Mediterranean:

1.   Crews on Ro-Ro ships are fatigued to a degree that dwarfs even the high fatigue levels on most other ships. In addition to the usual reasons that the industry dumps on them that contribute to extreme fatigue, these crews put up with a new port (in often a new country) every few hours, extremely short ports stays, sometimes multiple terminals in ports and constant lashing and unlashing of cargo, in port, before arrival and after departure. In the high traffic density areas of Europe in winter, Masters and bridge watchkeepers are constantly on edge while sailing, with poor visibility and high seas (remember the North Sea?) often the norm. In port, they are often required to perform ISPS duties covering multiple access points (on one ship, one gangway and two ramps were required to be manned).  In short, they may not have the time or the energy left in them to react to emergencies in the way they should.

Lesson that should be learnt: Stop rogering the crews any further! Follow your own laws related to rest periods! Instead of berating and threatening him, support the Master who anchors the ship for the crew to get some rest (me!) or who wants to stop the practice of crew lashing and unlashing the cargo to give them some rest (me again!)

2.   Quite a few car carrier ports or terminals in Europe suffer from frequent high winds-Zeebrugge in Belgium comes to mind, but there are many others. I have seen ports like Bristol in the UK and Livorno in Italy closed due to high winds more than once. And I forget the name of that disaster of a terminal in Turkey- just a finger sticking out into the water- that was particularly unsafe- with an incompetent pilot, a corrupt administration and a dangerously inept tug thrown in for good measure.  These terminals and ports are not built to take in the big high-sided vessels that operate today.

Lesson that should be learnt: Build or modify terminals to make them fit for purpose. Back Masters when they say some ports are unsafe (Me again. Someday I will tell that story)

3.   The requirement already exists that operators and charterers must send a ship to a safe terminal in a safe port, although managers usually shudder violently if a Master brings up this legal concept. Another problem is that many managers, even some of those who have sailed, do not sometimes have enough shiphandling experience to comprehend what the Master is trying to explain. Besides, most do not care. What they are really thinking of is, what will the charterers say if the Master officially claims that the port is unsafe? How much of the crap will hit the fan? If it does, are we, the managers, covered? Is our client a big shipowner who will walk away with many ships? If the Master is right and an accident takes place, are we insured? And of course, how do I, the manager, protect myself and my job?

Safety is much lower down the list of priority of these blinkered minds.

Lessons that should be learnt: One, listen to what the Master is saying about safety! The poor sod may be right. Two: Stop worrying about covering your own behind- that attitude impedes progress, whether at sea or ashore.

What the MAIB wants ro-ro crews to do is right. But the lessons it chooses to ignore make it dead wrong.



Stephen Spark said...

Spot on, as usual.

And, no, I fear the lessons won't be learnt, by any of the (doubtless well-intentioned) guff-generators. After all, guff generation is a massive and highly profitable global industry that can mass-produce platitudes for use in any circumstance. Each statement of the obvious is lovingly hand-finished by skilled craftspeople hand-picked for their 20:20 hindsight.

manu said...


Guff generation.. must remember that phrase.

Unknown said...

There couldn't be a more accurate assessment of the actual scenario at sea - far removed from the blinkered eyes of the inexperienced pencil pushers sitting in the office. Those unfit to sail will readily embrace the unseamanlike environs of the Office. Kudos once again