Communications issues – do you fully understand what is being said?


A vessel was the subject of two reports, the former being a pilot ladder deficiency but there was also a communications issue when trying to address the deficiency. The communications issue led to a near grounding.

 What the Reporter told us:

Recently, whilst climbing a pilot ladder on an inbound bulk carrier, I noticed that the ladder was well-worn with very loose chocks. After berthing, I informed the master, however with his very poor English I am not convinced that he fully understood. I also experienced difficulties in explaining various matters during the inbound pilotage.

Prior to disembarking alongside, I was concerned about the condition of the gangway, the ropes running through the stanchions at the top platform appeared in poor condition. A lot of fibre came off the ropes as they were pulled through the stanchion rings, indicating possible degradation of the ropes.

Five days later in an inner anchorage, whilst a severe wind warning was in place, the same vessel was dragging anchor towards a headland. The local signal station had been monitoring the vessel and advised them they were dragging. They responded that they were holding position using the engine. When asked if they needed assistance, they declined the offer.

Having completed its discharge, the vessel was at anchor waiting to re-load. At the time of anchoring the forecast did not include a severe wind warning. However, the master was advised to closely monitor the position and to rapidly get the vessel underway should the vessel start to drag anchor. During the afternoon I became aware of a severe wind warning. As we were due to have other ship movements, consideration was given to shifting this vessels’ position. However, the wind halted operations in the port and so these decisions were deferred to the following day. The ships’ agent was requested to “advise the master to closely monitor their position overnight and have the main engine available at short notice, which should include an engineer on duty”. The signal station also advised the ship of this message and monitored the ship closely at my request.

Later, I was called by the signal station and informed that the ship was dragging. I checked the position of the vessel and called the vessel using my home VHF. I advised the master to heave up his anchor and get underway, to move NE towards the middle of the harbour, and that a pilot would be dispatched to his vessel.

The quickest option was to divert a pilot from an outbound vessel. Once onboard, the pilot found the vessel was not underway and was only about 1 cable from grounding. The master had shortened the cable from 7 to 5 shackles but had not attempted to get underway or recover his anchor. Due to language issues, it appeared that the master had not fully understood the earlier instructions to get underway and had not developed a plan to deal with the situation. The pilot who boarded found the situation very challenging but eventually managed to drive the vessel away from the nearby shore and also recovered the anchor. Re-anchoring was considered but winds of 50-60 knots were experienced and so the vessel was taken out of the port.

There are a number of factors that contributed to this serious situation, and not all are attributable to the ship. With the benefit of hindsight, I am reviewing my own decisions.

Having berthed the vessel, I reported a deficient pilot ladder and raised concerns about the poor understanding of English by the master, which I now feel may have significantly contributed to the vessel’s near grounding.

CHIRP Comment:

The Maritime Advisory Board commented that the reports highlight several issues.

With respect to communications, SOLAS V Regulation 14.4 states that “English shall be used on the bridge as the working language for bridge-to-bridge and bridge-to-shore safety communications as well as for communications on board between the pilot and bridge watchkeeping personnel, unless those directly involved in the communication speak a common language other than English.” The report clearly indicates that the knowledge of the English language by the bridge team was insufficient for them to fully understand what was being requested of them. (Human Element – Communications).

The report highlights a potential cultural issue on board – a vessel’s personnel tend to respond in a certain manner depending on their background. It can be inferred that both culture and communications have led to a suspicion that pilotage was not being effectively monitored and that bridge team management was poor. (Human Element – culture, competence, complacency, alerting, situational awareness and teamwork)

The self-criticism by the reporter is a very good point – not everything may have been attributable to the ship. Perhaps in hindsight, the inner anchorage may not have been the best place to anchor if weather conditions were subject to sudden change. A suggested learning point is to consider how pilots, port authorities and VTS manage these situations and how they could have controlled things better. The bow tie diagram illustrates the issue.


Bow tie diagram highlighting prevention of threats on the left-hand side to avoid recovery measures and consequences on the right


Report Ends…..