Poor planning and even poorer communication put crew members in potential danger.
What the reporter told us:
On 4th December two offshore vessels arrived at the port, the lead ship having been a frequent visitor whilst the other vessel was on a first visit. Their berths had been booked directly with the berth operator, and the Harbour Master had been given no information about their visit. The reporter, a duty pilot, learned while bringing the ships in that they would both be sailing the next morning in order to test life rafts.
Both vessels duly departed and a (different) duty pilot learnt that they were testing 500-man life rafts needing about 3m of swell to test them. This was all the information that was given.
In the early afternoon the lead ship called the VTS, indicating it would require a pilot to return to the berth, but that things had not gone ‘completely to plan’. The reporter spoke to the master of the inbound vessel who advised that there were still evacuation chutes attached to his ship’s starboard side, “but it wouldn’t be an issue as they didn’t effect manoeuvrability and the ship would berth port side to. However pilot boarding would not be possible on the starboard side”. The pilot expressed doubts at the vessel being able to berth at all in the prevailing conditions with a 40kt wind directly on the beam when approaching the berth, since it was known that the vessel had a very large forward windage and a single bow tunnel thruster. The master agreed and it was decided to wait until the wind speed reduced before berthing.
Enquiries were made as to the situation regarding the second vessel. The captain stated that she was towing the 2 life rafts, so it was pointed out that she would not be able to enter until daylight slack water the next day. Port procedure is for all tows to enter at slack water as there are strong tides across the entrance.
After the reporter had sailed another vessel, he returned to the VTS. The Harbour Master was speaking by telephone to the project managers. They were unhappy that the second vessel could not enter the port. At this stage the Harbour Master was told that their fast rescue craft had broken down and 4 persons were still in the life rafts, but “they had survival suits on so that is all right”. The telephone call ended shortly afterwards.
Within the VTS, it was suggested that the Coastguard needed to be aware of the situation, as it would be dark shortly and the 4 men needed to be removed from the life rafts. A few minutes later the Harbour Master called the project managers and said they should get the men out of the life rafts. He asked if they had informed the Coastguard. They said they had, but the reporter heard them call the Coastguard immediately afterwards.
The Coastguard took control of the situation and established that 1 man was possibly injured. Within a short time, the local lifeboat was tasked to rescue the 4 men. They successfully did this.
When the men were brought ashore (one with a broken ankle) one approached the Harbour Master and thanked him, as he had heard it was the port that had insisted that they were rescued. He stated that conditions in the life rafts were horrendous.
The duty pilot safely berthed the lead vessel at about 21:00 when the wind had eased. The reporter was on duty again the next day and managed to board the second vessel outside. Once through the breakwaters the 2 life rafts were transferred to harbour work boats which allowed the second vessel to berth safely followed by the two life rafts. Note: Each of the life rafts was 28m x10m.
Apparently, there was a flag state surveyor on board the lead vessel to witness the test / trial of the life rafts.
Regarding this report, the members of the MAB considered that there were some details and other information that CHIRP was not privy to, namely the purpose of the test. Was it a prototype test, a product function test or an acceptance trial?
While none of the MAB members had encountered a 500 man life raft before, the basics of good seamanship, proper planning and risk assessment apply to any maritime undertaking and this report highlighted several shortfalls in those areas.
- The members of the MAB found it difficult to comprehend that berths can be booked for ships arriving in a port without advising the Harbour Master, who is the responsible authority for the port
- Accepting that a 3m swell height was required for the trial, planning should have included facilities and redundancies for dealing with foreseeable problems bearing in mind that sea states can deteriorate as well as moderate
- Either the life rafts were always going to be towed back into harbour or it should have been a planned eventuality, but in either case the port requirements and restrictions for tows entering the port should have been ascertained by the project managers
- The tendency for managers to overrule or otherwise usurp the master’s responsibility and authority is quite common within the offshore sector
- The masters of the two vessels involved in the trial had a duty of care for the 4 persons in the towed life rafts, even more so because one person was injured. They should have notified the shore authorities and requested assistance as soon as it was apparent that normal methods of recovery had failed or were no longer available