A number of factors aboard a cargo ship limping through the Arctic Ocean led to the tragic deaths of two crewmembers.
On 28 December 2019, the Maltese-flagged bulk carrier Stara Planina set sail from Murmansk, Russia, for the Black Sea port of Constanta in Romania.
Five days later, having suffered main engine problems, it was steaming slowing through the Arctic Norwegian Sea at barely three knots, rolling and pitching heavily in Force 10 conditions as ten-metre waves crashed onto its bows. Air and sea temperatures at the time were both 5°C.
Stara Planina’s 19-strong crew, made up mostly of Bulgarians and Ukrainians, included a young deck trainee from St. Petersburg who had joined the ship just four months earlier – his first job at sea.
At around 1000 the bosun noticed that the aft mooring ropes stored on the poop deck had become uncoiled and loose, with some hanging dangerously over the guardrails. The master asked the chief officer to head down to the area with a party of crewmembers to sort the problem out.
However, their attempts to lift the ropes from the poop deck and onto the first deck proved difficult as they were too heavy to carry and had become entangled with other ropes. The chief officer decided instead to start pulling up the mooring ropes that were hanging over the port side, knowing they posed an immediate threat to the ship should they foul in its propeller.
At 1100, with the operation becoming increasingly challenging, three more crew – including the young deck trainee – arrived to help. The deck trainee went over to work closely and directly with the chief officer. The chief officer was heard calling out to the deck trainee to secure himself with a rope.
Then, at 1240, with the last of the mooring ropes finally safely secured, the chief officer and deck trainee started to make their way back to the accommodation block. At that moment two huge waves crashed across the deck within seconds of each other, sweeping both overboard.
Search and rescue efforts
When the master was informed via telephone, he ordered the wheel hard to port. Unfortunately, due to Stara Planina’s low speed and the poor weather conditions, it took more than 20 minutes to turn the vessel back onto a reciprocal course and begin steaming towards the man overboard location.
A Pan-Pan was broadcast over VHF while an MF DSC alert was sent out to all stations. The Pan-Pan was quickly escalated to Mayday. At 1330, contact was established with the Norwegian Coastguard who immediately deployed two search and rescue helicopters to assist in the operation.
At 2200, with no sign of the men, the search and rescue operation was terminated by the Coastguard and the ship authorised to proceed towards its destination. However, on instructions from the ship’s owners, the vessel remained on station at the location until 1200 of the following day.
Stock image (Credit: Shutterstock)
The crew involved in sorting out the loose mooring ropes on deck explained to accident investigators that both the chief officer and the deck trainee had tied ropes around their waists during the task.
Neither the chief officer nor the deck trainee were secured to any part of the vessel.
However, none of them could confirm whether the other ends of the ropes were ever secured to the vessel. One crewmember stated that the chief officer and deck trainee were actually tied together with the same rope.
They all confirmed that when the waves washed over the poop deck, neither the chief officer nor the deck trainee were secured to any part of the vessel.
The final investigation report published by Transport Malta, with assistance from the Norwegian Safety Investigation Authority, determined that:
- The chief officer and the deck trainee were lost overboard when unexpected waves washed over the poop deck
- They were not secured to the vessel at the time of the incident
- Immersion in cold water would have shortened their survival time
- They were not wearing lifejackets while working exposed on deck, in adverse weather conditions
- The approach applied to secure the aft mooring ropes, did not suffice to prevent the mooring ropes from scattering around the poop deck and over the rails in the encountered adverse weather conditions
- The chief officer and the deck trainee released the line which they were using to secure themselves, suggesting it was either impossible to walk back to the accommodation block with the line secured around their waists or the task was considered complete and they were walking away from what was considered to be the hazardous area
- A regular rope was used by the men instead of a safety harness
- Slow speed made it difficult to turn the vessel’s heading in good time.
Type: Bulk carrier
Length overall: 186m
Cargo: 37,688 tonnes of fertiliser
Read the full official report here.
Dennis O’Neill is a journalist specialising in maritime.