The published accounts by the two survivors of the loss of the Stellar Daisy make very sobering reading. The speed with which things went wrong, and their survival being a matter of chance, in that they, unlike their colleagues and friends, were not dragged down by the suction of the sinking ship until they drowned, stand out. Reading these accounts led me to read again some other accounts by the handful of survivors from handysize bulk carriers which have capsized following a shift in an ore cargo. There is a pattern – a pattern of things going very wrong, very fast, in all these cases.
Amongst the fine seamen from whom I have learned a little, in the course of four decades in shipping, was Captain Ralf Rutkowsky, of Bugsier-, Reederei- und Bergungs-Gesellschaft GmbH und Co, Hamburg. Ralf when I knew him was a salvage master, and a good one, but he had some interesting views on merchant ships. He considered that enclosed wheelhouses were sissified, and that there was no substitute for keeping a real look out from an open bridge. He also said that if you are on an ore carrier, and something goes amiss, the ‘usual rule’ – that you should stay with the ship until the ship leaves you – the ‘step up into the liferaft’ rule, often cited along with the wisdom about ‘never going ashore with an anchor in the pipe’, does not apply. Ralf said that on an ore carrier, the only thing to do is to get off the ship and into a boat or a raft, at once.
Ralf was speaking from experience; he had been torpedoed and sunk, twice, by the British, on ore carriers on the ‘Narvik Run’ in World War Two.
I am going to suggest that rather than speaking of ‘bulk carriers’ as a group, we should look more carefully at ships – be they conventional bulk carriers or dedicated ore carriers, trading in ore. I suggest that most of the loss of life has been from ships laden with an ore cargo, rather than from ships carrying coal or grain or fertiliser or sugar or rice or any of the minor bulks, and I think we should look at Captain Rutkowsky’s advice, because, let’s face it, he lived to tell the tale, not once, but twice, and that was in the days of kapok lifejackets and davit launched clinker lifeboats.
The IMO have, wisely I think, stipulated that bulk carriers should be fitted with a free fall lifeboat, but unless the crew get into the boat, the boat isn’t going to save them. I am not sure that the ‘abandon ship’ drill, as usually practiced onboard today is a realistic simulation of what happens onboard an ore carrier which experiences either a cargo shift or a hull failure. I think that Ralf was right and that the crew need to get off at once, either in a raft or in the free fall boat, because the rafts and the boat have enough buoyancy to overcome the suction of the sinking ship, whereas the human body, even with a lifejacket, does not. We are, after all, mostly water. In the days when ships sank more often than they do now, seamen were very aware of the need to get clear from the suction of the sinking hull.
In abandoning some classes of ship – chemical tankers, gas tankers and ore carriers, for the sake of argument, we should, as an industry, aim for the ‘everyone out in 90 seconds’ rule that is mandated for the abandonment of a civil airliner in the event of an accident. If airline staff can get hundreds of people including children and the elderly and infirm off a plane in 90 seconds, we can surely get two dozen fit men and women off a ship in that time.
I suggest that the officer of the watch on an ore carrier should sound the general alarm and put the main engine to Stop as soon as he feels uneasy, rather than call the Master, that rather than muster at a muster station on hearing the general alarm, the crew should board the boat and pull the pin, and that anyone who isn’t in the boat in very short order should be left to drown.
It follows, because the purpose of an emergency drill is to make the actions that we take in an emergency automatic, so that we do them without thinking, that the drill that should be practised to the point where it is automatic should be to get everyone, apart from the OOW and a helmsman (in a drill!) into the boat in 90 seconds, and not mustering at a muster station, in a leisurely manner, while chatting, as is done now.
At worst, this course of action would result in a crew sitting, alive and seasick, in a freefall lifeboat and wondering how to get back aboard, which would be embarrassing, but no worse than that. That is not a very high price to pay for saving lives.
To read the first two instalments in Andrew’s Stellar Daisy related trilogy, click here.