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NEWS AND VIEWS FEBRUARY 2011 

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THE CARNIVAL SPLENDOR FIRE

People who follow reports on marine disasters may remember that the Carnival Splendor suffered from a fire back in November 2010 with 4500 passengers and crew on board. It completely disabled the ship, leaving those on board with limited facilities of all sorts, including the toilets.

Now the investigations are taking place led by the Panamanian flag with whom the ship was registered. Up to now it has been identified that the fire started in the No 5 engine and that it was fought by ship's personnel with portable fire-fighting equipment. Thereafter the captain decided to inject CO2 into the space, but this was totally unsuccessful due to the fact that they system was inoperable for a whole variety of reasons, despite the fact that the ship was less than two years old.

As yet the more fundamental problem as to why a fire in a single compartment could have completely disabled the vessel has not been identified, or if it has it has not been made public. This must be a problem for the whole cruise industry which seems to be embracing the concept of extremely large vessels some of them carrying more than 5000 passengers. If the Carnival Splendor had suffered the fire and complete loss of propulsion in adverse weather in the middle of the Atlantic the outcome could have been completely different.

As it is the replacement of the No 5 engine poses problems which will be difficult to overcome due the limited facilities on the US west coast for such repairs. In any case some commentators have suggested that this, compounded by the damage caused by water and smoke may result in the ship having to be scrapped.

COUGAR FLIGHT 91

Back in 2009 a Canadian helicopter transporting offshore workers to the Hibernia Field suffered loss of oil pressure in its gearbox and turned back towards the shore, indicating that it might have to land in a car park more or less at the first point where it was due to cross the coast. However only a few minutes later, still 35 miles from land, it crashed into the sea at more than 60 knots and broke up. Only one person survived, to be rescued from the sea after an hour and twenty minutes, in water temperatures of between 0 and 1 degree C. Another body was recovered from the sea surface, and everyone else was found in their seats in the body of the helicopter, the post mortem determining that they had died from drowning, essentially caused by cold shock.

The Canadian Transportation Safety Board have just reported on the accident and have made a number of recommendations which are probably of interest to anyone involved in offshore safety. The enquiry determined that the studs holding the main gearbox filter bowl together had failed, resulting in a complete loss of oil. The risk assessment process carried out in relation to the helicopter type, the Sikorsky S-92A, determined that the possibility that the gearbox would fail within 30 minutes with only limited lubrication is "extremely remote". The report recommends that this be changed, and that helicopters should be provided with gearboxes capable of prolonged operation even with no lubrication.

They also recommend that Transport Canada prohibit the operation of helicopters over water if  the sea state will prevent safe ditching and evacuation. A news item on this topic suggests that the sea state which would prevent safe ditching is six metres, but this seems a bit excessive. In a way the UK legislation already has a similar requirement in place, in that it is considered that for a helicopter to fly, the standby vessel must be capable of recovering survivors from the sea in the event of a crash. The Canadian report also recommended that personnel travelling offshore be provided with an emergency breathing system.

I no longer travel offshore by helicopter but by the time I stopped doing it I was wearing three layers of clothing under an insulated survival suit, which was designed in a way that prevented water ingress from neck and wrist seals. I was also wearing an inflatable lifejacket, an emergency breathing device and a locating beacon which would automatically activate on immersion in water. My thought was always "If I need all this stuff I shouldn't be going". 

THE MEL OLIVER COLLISION

While I am working away at my computer I make notes if something comes to my attention which I think might be worth expressing an opinion about, or which I think might be of interest to my readers in any case. And here I am taking a guess that at least some of the 500 odd people a day who visit the site, read some of the words, rather than just looking at the pictures. So when I opened the notebook today at the top were the words "Mel Oliver Collision".

I had no recollection at all about what these words meant, but only a little investigation determined that the Mel Oliver was a Mississippi tug which was pushing a barge full of hydrocarbons of some sort on 23rd July 2008. It had become just a bit famous due to the fact that the barge was in collision with a tanker the Tintomara, and the whole event, including the VHF conversations is to be found on Youtube.

It appears that in the early hours of the morning the Tintomara was on its way down river on the starboard side of the channel, and the Mel Oliver was on its way up, when the latter veered across the channel into the path of the tanker, and despite the warnings on the VHF the Tintomara collided with the barge, and as a result there was a oil spill of some size. Points in the investigation which created interest were the fact that the tug was essentially under the command of an "apprentice steersman", who claimed to have been trying to fix the radar at the time of the collision. And this was because the Captain had left the tug three days previously, because he suspected that his girl friend was seeing some-one else and wanted to investigate. Comments on the websites featuring the incident were mainly interested in whether in fact he was correct in his suspicions.

I still can't remember why this popped up again in 2011.

THE DEEPWATER HORIZON AND HUMAN FACTORS

Over the last nine months I have written about 20,000 words about the Deepwater Horizon accident mostly in order to explain to readers who may not have a direct involvement in the rig business what various reports actually meant, and sometimes to comment or provide information, since I have read most of the witness testimony from the Coastguard/BOEMRE investigation, the BP report and the President's Commission report.

The commission reported on 11th January, and it itself used much of the testimony from the Coastguard Investigation which is due to report some time in March. There is now pressure amongst the legislators in America to demand that all the craft and rigs involved in offshore exploration in the US Gulf be built in the US and that they be US flagged. While this is an interesting ambition, would it make any difference to offshore safety? The industry itself is protesting to the point of apoplexy, saying not unreasonably that this would cause the business to close down, so if they are right things would become safer.

But I digress. In my final report on the accident I have made some comments, which I now realise are mainly concerned with human factors, and I only realised this because the UK HSE have recently issued some guidance about how to deal with human factors as a means of improving safety. Of course nearly all accidents are basically due to human error at some point, although risk assessments generally make the assumption that personnel are trained and competent to carry out what-ever task they are involved in. Interestingly the Canadian investigation into Cougar Flight 91 determined that training in helicopter evacuation degraded after six months, and should take place in conditions which are as realistic as possible. They point out that Canadian legislation requires retraining after three years, and Uk legislation after four, and in the case of the UK we are able to say that all attempts at realism have been discarded because of the potential distress to the trainees this would cause.

A FURTHER PIRACY UPDATE 

Since the Korean commando attack last month during which eight pirates were killed, there have been further attacks and in one on the German ship Beluga Nomination the crew took refuge in their citadel, but after 48 hours the pirates broke in and killed two crewmembers, a Russian and a Filipino.

Only a few days ago a Greek tanker, the Mount Irene, was hijacked close to the coast of Oman with 25 crew on board and a crude oil cargo worth $200 million. Greek ship-owners are up in arms. Meanwhile the Dutch government is considering a recommendation that ships flagged with them be able to carry armed guards. This is illegal at present.

It seems that the pirates are now using captured merchant ships in order to extent the range of their activities and in addition to initiate attacks on their prey. This sounds like war, and can only be of even greater concern to all seafarers and their friends and relatives. 

Victor Gibson. February 2011.

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