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Unsafe at any draft – Part three

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.

Andrew Craig-Bennett

Andrew Craig-Bennett works for a well known Asian shipowner. Previous employers include Wallem, China Navigation, Charles Taylor Consulting and Swire Pacific Offshore. Andrew was also a columnist for Lloyd's List for a decade.


  1. Did Stellar Daisy have a free fall boat? I don’t think so. Also of note is the vessels cannot be compared with a plane and to expect someone to get into a boat from the bottom of an engine room in 90 seconds is ridulous or from the Bow which is 300 meters away.

  2. It’s true – we don’t really train to get off a ship or a platform at all… unless you consider that occasionally mooching about self-consciously at our emergency stations is training…

    Drills, like any other operational activity, need careful forethought and planning. Unhappily, we’re often not good at that in our industry… we seem to prefer lip-service. It’s a management thing.

    Thankfully, most passengers on a cruise ship are as blissfully unaware of their prospects as the sheep on a livestock carrier…

  3. Thanks Simon.

    Years ago I was chatting to a very bright Irishman who was Steamships’ tech super in Moresby at the time. Alas I have forgotten his name. He told me a story about emergency drill that has stayed with me. He was a junior engineer on a tanker discharging gasoline and was doing an engine room round when he smelled smoke.

    The next thing that he remembered was entering the engine room with the fire party wearing his BA set.

    He had done everything perfectly – alarm, shut down, dampers, CO2, etc. But his adrenaline level had been so high that he could remember nothing – about it – his training had kicked in under stress and he had acted entirely automatically.

    The Armed Forces know the value of drill. We are losing lives because we don’t take it seriously.

  4. As we say in the Armed Forces keep practising the drill and then real life becomes a drill! There does seem to be a disconnect between the ship and crew and the owners of the vessel. Why do they not insist that the drill is done and a record kept. Insurers could demand that records of these drills are available at the vessel’s Company and no record, no compensation. All three articles are most interesting. But in a way sad, because they reflect on the almost total lack of interest in the crew and the vessel shown by the authorities tasked with safety at sea. The maritime press is full of reports of mal-treatment of crews of vessels and the failure of companies to maintain their vessels in accordance with current regulations.

    1. Andy,

      The drills are mandatory and they are done and Port State Control officers check them – and can call for a boat or fire drill etc. The problem is, as Simon says, that they are not taken seriously enough, and they never have been outside war time, under any flag, as witness the old British slang for boat and fire drill – “Board of Trade sports!”

      As to the chasm that has grown up between ship and shore, I can only agree with you.

  5. Self-doubt, indecision and inertia govern the process of abandoning ship.Despite the frequent drills, most seafarers initially act with a little disbelief when ordered to abandonship. And everyone would really want to make a last-minute dash to their cabin to retrieve at least their cash and the i-pad. Unfortunately, the math of the factors of this evolution in a VLOC is difficult. Longer distance to the boat, shorter reaction time, more intense forces of suction due to higher volumes of air in the cargo holds and bigger amplitude of list especially for those living in the cabins closer to the shipside. Under such circumstances, some of the crew of Stellar Daisy probably couldn’t even open their cabin doors to escape. The two survivors of Stellar Daisy were plain lucky….they were actually thrown overboard by a combination of favourable physics…rather than escape by their own skillful efforts.
    Lifeboats, liferafts and immersion suits are good only for use upto handymax sized ships. We need an entirely new kind of vehicle for personal survival in bigger ships.

    1. Manjit,

      Thank you for an absolutely inspiring response.

      I could not agree more.

      The whole subject should be re-evaluated, starting from first principles.

  6. Your suggestion that the OOW should initiate abandonship procedure goes against the established line of authority in any ship. The order to abandonship must be a ‘considered’ decision (which can be a quick decision ) but one that must be taken only by the Master.
    It is unlikely that ships sink suddenly. In the case of Stellar Daisy, the statement of the survivors indicates that there was some evidence of trouble when speed had been reduced and the vessel was vibrating. It may be that the Master took too long to decide any action to abandonship. The case of Costa Concordia was similar where the Master delayed the decision to abandonship.

    1. Manjit –

      Yes, it does, but we expect the OOW to be able to keep the ship from hitting anything, which is a similar sort of responsibility.

      The Master may be alive, awake, and alert – or he may not be. As you point out, the Master commonly takes too long to decide on abandoning ship, even when she or he is alive, awake, alert, and in the wheelhouse . That’s why I am suggesting a radical alternative. Give the OOW the authority – and the Master can over-ride it when he gets to the boat deck.

      1. Andrew, a few days ago I wrote an article wherein I tried to address this issue (in part). I examined the contribution that insurers could make. I’ve not achieved a Craig-Bennett standard of journalism yet, but you’ll see where I’m coming from here: – see ‘Marine Insurance – A ship owner’s perspective’

      2. Hi Andrew
        Interesting series of articles – loved parts 1 & 2.
        I disagree that the decision to abandon ship is a similar responsibility to that of a watchkeeper avoiding collision/grounding. Anyone trained as a deck officer is (ideally!) capable of collision avoidance and navigation. A new 3/O has a vastly differing understanding of the ships condition from a structure and stability point of view than the master (or Chief Mate if the event transpires that you suggest of the master becoming incapacitated). This is an element of both training (at Chief Mate/Master level) and experience.
        I agree there needs to be an approach to these situations that views a situation with the worst possible ramifications in mind – clearly the Costa Concordia and Stellar Daisy masters did not – this is also human nature. No master will relish making the ultimate decision that their ship is lost. It can be and is made quickly however – see the master of the Baltic Ace (who was absent from the bridge at time of collision) who ordered abandon ship within a minute or so of impact, saving many lives. I think there does need to be a heavy emphasis at Mate/Master level on approach and leadership in casualty response situations. A major disaster can never happen until it happens (humans do not want to accept that this is happening to them) – but senior shipping staff need to be approaching situations with the very real awareness that it can and does happen – and that today it may be happening to them.
        Another consideration needs to be made in response to the idea of a junior officer ordered abandon ship at the drop of a hat. Suggesting that it’s as easy as feeling silly then figuring a way back on board and carrying on with the voyage if a junior and inexperienced officer has ordered abandon ship because there was a couple of heavy and messy rolls or something similar is a little optimistic.
        Recovering persons or a lifeboat in a seaway is a dangerous and difficult proposition. I would suspect that lives would be lost as a result of erroneous abandon ship situations.
        I think greater emphasis to senior shipping staff on considering the worst possibilities in response to situations is the first step (in the ambulance at the bottom of a cliff approach). Many other elements some of which you’ve touched on in previous articles – more aggressive and intolerant approach to substandard and corroded structure on ships from operators, surveyors etc – no tolerance of ship staff for ignorant terminal operators who think it’s their right to load ships in a way that places excessive stress during the loading process – to name just a couple..
        Anyway, just a couple of thoughts – think it’s a necessary and good discussion to be having.

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