Who exactly should command a ship…?
Traditionally, a ship’s captain has always been the final arbiter of all onboard decisions. But now, following a serious incident off Norway, that presumption is being officially questioned.
In April 2021, the 111m (366ft) Dutch cargo ship Eemslift Hendrika ran into difficulties while sailing 60nm off the coast of Norway during a fierce north-westerly storm.
At the time, the heavy-lift vessel was carrying several large yachts on its deck while its cargo hold contained six azimuth thrusters — large propeller pods capable of rotating 360 degrees.
Battling through the Force 9 gale, with waves rolling 15m (50ft), the Eemslift Hendrika began to list significantly to starboard, at an angle of around 30 degrees. Shortly afterwards the vessel began to roll and pitch violently in the heavy seas.
In an effort to reduce the increasingly alarming motion, the captain — who had been with the ship for just a few days — changed course away from the coastline in order to keep the ship’s bow moving into the waves. He also reduced the ship’s speed.
During the next watch the first officer made an attempt to steer the ship back towards the coast, but, with the seas continuing to roll relentlessly and the ship’s directional stability now compromised by the increasingly eccentric listing, he was forced to steer back into the wind.
Sometime later the vessel’s propulsion broke down and the strong winds began blowing the vessel steadily towards the shore. By now the list had increased to an alarming 45 degrees.
Eight of the ship’s twelve crewmembers were evacuated by helicopter while the remaining four crewmembers tried to keep the vessel in a stable condition. However, they also had to be eventually evacuated as the conditions deteriorated, with the vessel set to continue its course on automatic pilot at a power setting of 40 per cent.
When the dawn eventually arrived, it became clear that during the night the vessel had lost a good deal of its deck cargo. While falling overboard from the deck, one of the boats had taken the jib of the onboard crane with it. The jib then became stuck underneath the waterline and had begun causing damage to the vessel’s hull. The Eemslift Hendrika was less than seven nautical miles from the shore when a tug line was finally secured to it. It was then towed safely into the harbour at Ålesund.
The 111m (366ft) Dutch cargo ship Eemslift Hendrika ran into difficulties while sailing 60nm off the coast of Norway during a fierce north-westerly storm (Credit: Norwegian Coastguard)
An accident investigation report by the Dutch Safety Board found that during the voyage several of the azimuth thrusters loaded inside the cargo hold had shifted, puncturing an anti-heeling tank and the ballast water tanks. Water then flowed from the ballast tanks into the cargo hold, causing the vessel to develop its significant list.
The investigators discovered that the lashing system used in the hold was insufficient for its job, making it impossible for the ship to maintain course and speed during the storm.
The set-up of the lashing system had not been completed in accordance with the pre-voyage plan, which, in turn, meant that the calculated forces were different to the actual forces exerted on the lashings during the voyage.
The lashings were also made up of different materials of differing lengths, which created variations in the structural elasticity of the lashing system. The angles at which the lashings were installed also exceeded the angles prescribed by industry standards. The investigators also found that cargo stoppers had not been used to secure the azimuth thrusters, and that the series of checks carried out by the crew of the stowage plan and lashing calculations had failed to identify the inherent problematic errors.
When the weather conditions had begun to deteriorate, the vessel’s owner and operator, Amasus Shipping, advised the captain to take a route closer inland. The captain, however, ignored the company’s advice and decided, instead, to take a route across the open sea, which he believed would not put the vessel or his crew into any danger. The Dutch Safety Board report has concluded that this decision “approached the margins of safe navigation”. However, it also points out that the company’s communication was “merely advice and not a direct order” because “the captain’s good seamanship was being relied on”.
In its summing up of the incident, the Dutch Safety Board report argues that shore communications with ships has improved significantly in recent years, to the extent that there is now regular and routine contact between a ship’s management office and the vessel itself. This, it says, now allows the ship’s operator to deliver direct instructions to a captain “if a situation is considered to require it”. The report has therefore issued the following, potentially controversial and certainly game-changing, recommendation: Eemslift Hendrika’s owner, it urges, should “use, in exceptional situations where the safety of the crew and the ship is, or is likely to be, compromised, the possibility of imposing instructions on the captain”.
Read the Dutch Safety Board report into the Eemslift Hendrika in full.
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Dennis O’Neill is a freelance journalist specialising in maritime.