Bulk carrier blackout

When a cargo vessel ran aground in Western Australia, accident investigators discovered a series of fundamental contributing factors...

When a cargo vessel ran aground in Western Australia due to an electrical failure, accident investigators discovered a series of fundamental contributing factors — including poor bridge communication and a lack of critical spares.

On 11 March 2018, the 298m (977ft) Panamanian-flagged bulk carrier Bulk India ran aground, while departing the industrial port of Dampier in Western Australia. 

An investigation by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) found that the ship’s steering and propulsion were lost shortly after the main engine was increased to full ahead and the ship’s auxiliary diesel generator engines shut down after the cooling water temperature controller failed, resulting in overheated cooling water.   

The emergency generator started as required, but it also shut down due to overheating because a radiator fan belt, that had failed seven months earlier, had not been replaced. 

As a result, Bulk India’s rudder became fixed at 20° to port and its attending tug was unable to prevent the vessel’s turn towards the edge of the departure channel, where it grounded.  

The ship was eventually recovered back into the channel with the aid of additional tugs, before being moved to a safe anchorage. A dive inspection of the hull found evidence of contact with the bottom but no significant damage.

Fan belt failure

Seven months before the incident, while Bulk India was loading cargo in Peru, the fan belt had failed on its emergency generator during routine testing. The failure was reported to shore management, accompanied by a request, marked urgent, for replacement belts. Although, the request was repeated one month later, the spares never reached the ship before the Dampier incident. The management company was unable to provide ATSB accident investigators with an explanation as to how or why this occurred.  

The master and chief engineer told investigators that the emergency generator would start and take load but only run for a short time before overheating and shutting down.  

Two weeks prior to the Dampier incident, Bulk India had experienced another blackout due to auxiliary generator cooling issues.

2 1745764 Tropic Maritime Images Shipspotting
Credit: Tropic Maritime Images/Shipspotting.com 

Poor bridge communication

The two pilots onboard Bulk India at the time of the grounding were not informed of the machinery problems, including the state of the emergency generator, prior to the blackout. And, because conversations between the master, chief engineer and other crew, relevant to the deteriorating situation in the engine room, were not in a language that the pilots understood, all opportunities for the pilots to be informed of the problems were lost. 

Although the master had several opportunities outside of these conversations to inform the pilots of the situation and problems, he did not do so.  

The absence of effective communication, according to the report, removed the opportunity from the pilots to prepare for the loss of power and control, and, consequently, reactions which may have assisted in a more timely or effective response were unnecessarily delayed.

Safety improvements

In light of the accident report, Bulk India’s operator has made improvements to its safety management and operating systems, as well as its staff education and training processes. 

And, following extensive simulation exercises and a review of existing risk assessments for ships entering and departing the port of Dampier, a second tug now remains in attendance with all bulk carriers for a further distance along the channel.

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Credit: Henk Snoek/Shipspotting.com 

Cruise sector

According to the Maritime Injury Guide (MIG), machinery failure has been the top cause for maritime accidents over the past decade — a phenomenon that has affected the cruise sector in particular. Notable examples of electrical blackouts amongst cruise ships include the Vision of the Sea (2018), the Coral Princess (2019) and Vasco da Gama (2019). 

The most worrying incident occurred in March 2019, when the 228m (748ft) cruise ship Viking Sky experienced a blackout and loss of propulsion in storm conditions, close to the Norwegian coast, after a loss of oil pressure that automatically shut down the engines.  

With 1,373 passengers and crew onboard, the ship began to drift dangerously towards the shore, but was successfully attached to a powerful tug just 100m (330ft) from rocks.  

Investigators estimated that if the tug hadn’t been attached in time, the resulting loss of life would have been equivalent to the tragedies of the Estonia (1994) or Titanic (1912). 

The Norwegian Safety Investigation Authority (AIBN) issued a report recommending that the owners and operators of all vessels ensure levels of lubricating oil in the tanks are strictly maintained according to the instructions of the engine manufacturer. In the case of a stormy weather forecast, the engine lubricating oil levels need to be topped up. The Norwegian Maritime Authority (NMA) also issued a general safety notice stating that all shipping companies should ensure a continuous supply of lubricating oil to engines and other critical systems during poor weather conditions.

Read the full ATSB Bulk India accident investigation report.


Dennis O’Neill is a freelance journalist specialising in maritime.