In this edition of the Ships and Oil Newsletter an item about the autonomous ship YARA Birkeland, more about the Jones Act, a comment about the Transocean Winner Report, Risk Assessment is it any good? And the loss of the al-Salam Boccaccio 98.


I search about in the media for good news in the marine industry, but seldom find any, however I have something different today but whether good or bad will depend on your point of view. Just a couple of days ago the successful model testing of the YARA Birkeland in Trondheim was announced. The Yara Birkeland is to be a 120 twenty foot equivalent feeder container ship which is intended to operate between three ports in southern Norway, and will apparently be the world’s first autonomous ship. It and will be solely powered by electricity. Just to recap, an autonomous ship will not be a self programmed robot; people will control it from centres somewhere on the shore, and in the case of the Yara Birkeland there will be three of them. It is also said that the ship will be equipped with an automatic mooring system which will not require human intervention, and that will be something to see. There is a programme for its future. It will enter service in the latter part of 2018 with a captain and small crew housed in a “container-based bridge and crew unit” and then in 2019 the first remote control tests will be carried out and then in 2020 the container based accommodation will be lifted off and the ship will become fully autonomous. It is not an enormous craft, 80 metres long and with a deadweight of 3200 mt. Its service speed will be a moderate six knots, with a maximum speed of ten knots, and either with or without a crew the ship is intended to save 40,000 truck journeys a year. This is such an amazing figure that one really wonders why the service has not been set up before.


The Jones Act, sacred to American seafarers is under attack again, as it is waived by the US government (according to the New York Times on 28th September). There have also been a number of articles by marine journalist recently questioning its validity in the present century. The supporters of the act, which is now 100 years old say that it is the only way that any US deep sea fleet exists at all, although there are apparently only 175 US ships remaining in service from a fleet of over 2000 in 1947. What is the Jones Act? It is a bit of US legislation which requires all coastwise vessels operating in US waters to be built in American shipyards, registered in the USA and crewed by American seafarers. Those of us who choose to look at the 1947 fleet and the 2017 fleet might suggest that the act has not been working very well, but supporters would say that without it there would be no American ships left at all, and everything including shipments to Puerto Rico and Hawaii, which are apparently adversely affected by the legislation would be carried in foreign ships, built in China and crewed by third world cheap labour. I admit to having some sympathy with this view since the Red Ensign has been adversely affected by the free market, and we Brits have lost out even on UK registered ships to cheaper but equally well qualified mariners or, as some suspect, with mariners whose UK equivalent qualifications have been gained due to loopholes in the system.  I would hesitate to suggest it but it appears that the act is made up of three components, and the only one which is really causing the trouble is the first, since American yards, once the most efficient in the world, now gouge anyone who wants anything built in them. If the ships could be built elsewhere, surely in the end mariners jobs would be saved – or is that just too logical?.


The ALP Forward (actually as the Ursus) by Jeff DeJean

Everyone in the business will remember the grounding of the Transocean Winner on the island of Lewis in the summer of 2016, and now the MAIB have released their report into the accident. The rig was on its way to Malta, and possibly onwards to the breakers in Turkey and the tow was being carried out at the cost of the owners, and so the job was to be undertaken by a single vessel the ALP Forward and the rig was to be unmanned. As often happens the intent to carry out what might be best described as an economy operation turned out to be extremely expensive, since the owners had firstly to recover the rig from the rocks and then have it taken away on a heavy lift ship. A quick glance through the report does not really point up any serious failings in the arrangements for the job, except that the intended route around the North of Scotland and then down the west coast of the Western Isles was maybe a bit too close to the coast at about twelve miles off. This had two effects, firstly the captain of the tug found it necessary to shorten the tow quite a bit to prevent it dragging on the seabed, therefore reducing the catenary and causing excessive tension in the gale force winds and secondly when the tow wire broke the rig was not very far from the beach. As I have mentioned before a semi-submersible up on the pontoons can make five knots over the ground due to the windage. There is more and it is a bit difficult to understand why the captain failed to mention to his employers that he was being dragged backwards by the tow, or that his reports were only being monitored by an Operations Assistant, preventing input from anyone with the appropriate expertise on shore.


Risk Assessed? The Maersk S Class under tow.

I know there are people out there who do not rate risk assessments as a valid means of making things safer, and actually they have a point. But I have some faith in the process if it is carried out honestly and skilfully; so here are a few words on the topic.

To start with we should accept the fact that the HSE (The UK Health and Safety Executive) believe that risk assessment is a magic bullet which will solve all problems, and also many people out there believe that carrying out a risk assessment will allow them to continue doing just what they want. In my view neither of these views is correct. But let’s start with a question – what is a risk assessment? An answer might be that we are carrying them out all the time. Typically you might be on the pavement in a busy city centre, and you look each way to decide whether to cross. You are helped by a set of traffic lights which will go red at some time to stop the vehicles on the road, and so probably you can cross safely, and standing there on the pavement you are carrying out a risk assessment.

In this situation there are a number of considerations, mainly the density of the traffic. So you look right and left and there are vehicles approaching from one or both directions, but the lights are in their favour  you may think that if you rush you’ll get across. It is just a bit dangerous but if you dash everything will be fine. You have assessed the risk, and decided that it’s a bit dodgy but you go for it anyway. Then if there’s nothing coming in either direction but the lights are still against you, you assess the risk, and decide that you can even take your time and still be safe. We’ve all done it haven’t we. And then whether there is traffic visible or not, the lights go red and so your assessment will indicate that it is absolutely safe to stroll across. Of course this may not actually be true, a rogue driver could ignore or not see the lights, but the risks are as low as they can be, other than deciding not to cross at all.

When talking about risk I have always said to the people I have been tutoring that overtaking a bus on a blind bend is not in itself unsafe, it only becomes unsafe if there is something coming the other way. So now the assessment requires that you take two factors into consideration, firstly you can’t see and secondly you don’t know if there’s something coming the other way.

This second example is closer to what we have to deal with in the marine environment. Usually there are a number of aspects to the assessment of risk, and one of the techniques I have used is the “BowTie” assessment where threats and the means of reducing them are placed on one side of the centre of the bow and the consequences, and the means of minimising them appear on the other. I also favour what might be called a narrative process where a group participants will just go through what is programmed to happen from the start to the end and identify aspects of the operation which might cause problems and then the means by such risks would be reduced. No numbers are involved. Both of these techniques require the active participation of a group of people who are likely to be involved in whatever the operation is.

I do not favour the type of assessment which just uses a table; in one column the risk is identified followed by two numbers, one for frequency and another for consequence, and then a reducing measure is included followed by further numbers which almost always indicate a reduction of risk to acceptable levels. Frequently the reducing measure is something that would be done anyway, so it has become a paper exercise, and no-one has to do anything This process is just not detailed enough, but many companies use them because they are no trouble and allow the company using them to carry on and do whatever it is that they want to do without actually having to do anything.

Indeed I have been a participant in risk assessments for rig moves subsequent to the loss of the Bourbon Dolphin, which did not apparently require anyone to contribute anything, the boxes had all bee filled, and with barely concealed indifference the facilitator read out every one in turn, and eventually got to the last one, and then everyone filed out. Had the risks been adequately assessed? Probably not.

I have spent whole days on behalf of clients sitting in other people’s risk assessments, in one case being solely interested in the safety of my client’s semi-submersible. The operation required the close approach of a vessel laying a cable and in the end I made a single request. I wanted the dynamic positioning validation for the ship. I made a formal request for the DP trials data, but never received it. Another aspect of the process, the company intent on carrying out the task not being prepared to deal with any impediment.

There is an aspect of risk assessments which is only too familiar to facilitators. They have collected people with the required knowledge and skills and they have enough of them, but one of the group is a manager from the company which wants to get the job done, and so even without fully understanding the process this person will often send the assessment off towards a dead end, or cause the other participants to avoid saying anything even vaguely controversial, which might impede the progress of the operation.

And if you are by now wondering why I am going on about this, it is because I have been studying the Danish Marine investigation into the loss of the two S class Maersk ships, for which some sorts of risk assessment took place prior to the event. Indeed many assessments took place, some carried forward to others, resulting in some confusion it seems. According to the investigators the people doing the risk assessments had no experience of towing ships side by side and relied solely on their imagination. They finally determined that the Maersk Supply risk management system does not help its users to manage risk, a pretty damning statement I think. The report documents a whole raft of possible failures in the system, but the main reason was that the people in charge wanted to do the job that way no matter what, because it was cheap. Going back to my first example, they were stepping out into the traffic and hoping for the best.

So when things go wrong out there, particularly in the offshore business, the Health and Safety Executive will quite often accuse the people in charge of carrying out insufficient risk assessment, which implies that a properly conducted risk assessment is the answer to everything. It isn’t but nor does it provide the means by which the organisation doing whatever it is that has to be done can do it, no matter what. A properly conducted risk assessment may at times prevent the proposed activity from taking place at all.   


The ship, the Al-Salam Boccaccio 98 was an Egyptian ferry which sank in the Red Sea on 3rd February 2006 with the loss of about 1000 lives. It had been built in 1970 as an Italian roll-on roll-off ferry and had been rebuilt in 1991, some 21 years later. The upgrade had added several decks and increased the car carrying capacity from 200 to 320. If you look at the photograph you can see that the bridge is almost at main deck level, with the new accommodation towering above it. This would make me suspicious to start with. But apparently all was well for a number of years, until a fire is said to have broken out maybe in the engine room, and the crew fought it using hoses. It is said, and that’s all we can record, since no formal investigation appears to have taken place, that the ship was listing after its departure from the port and that it had gradually become worse, then when it was necessary for the crew to fight the fire, it turned over. Searches by Egyptian warships and Italian coastal patrol ships resulted in the rescue of 314 survivors. Various possible reasons for the loss have been put forward, including free surface on the main deck, and the owner and his son were tried for wrong doing, but acquitted, however the ruling was overturned and in 2009 the owner was sent to prison for seven years, since he was heard on the black box to have told the captain to continue with the voyage despite the fire. The captain was reported as being seen as the first to leave the ship in a lifeboat.

Since publishing this story I have been appraised of further information by someone who knows. It seems that the crew fought the fire courageously until the ship actually turned over, and that the cause might have been due to customs regulations requiring the passengers to take the packaging off the things they had purchased so that they could claim them to be used or second hand. As a result the water was trapped on the car deck by debris in the scuppers.



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