Seafarers have always been engaged in a dangerous profession and though much progress has been made in this age of satellite technology, many of the risks remain and incidents still frequently occur on the high seas and in the approaches to ports. Just in the last few weeks we have seen four major casualties.

Historically shipping has been a high-risk enterprise with many ships being lost close to port. One of the greatest risks that ship owners, seafarers, charterers or even a port operator takes is that of a navigation incident leading to a major casualty. Incidents come in many forms: collisions, groundings, anchors dragging etc. The industry needs to reflect further, how is it that ships with advanced navigation systems and sophisticated communication technologies still find themselves involved in groundings, collisions and other incidents?

Planned, periodic and snap audits have a place in reducing the number of such incidents through introducing and maintaining best practices. They show the way to broader improvements, further innovation and to taming the dangers of the sea and shipping. The reasons why incidents leading to causalities occur are varied: human error, technical failure, mis-declaration of cargo, poor loading or lashing to name a few.  The impact of causalities is growing with the ship size, the total loss of a 3,500 TEU container ship is measured in hundreds of millions of dollars of cargo claims.  The loss of a 22,000 TEU container ship would be measures in tens or of billion of dollars or more.  The difference between losing a cruise liner of 2,000 and 8,000 passengers cannot be valued.

To understand the risks requires an understanding of the incidents that are occurring. There are multiple types of incidents including:

  • Collision between vessels
  • Impact with fixed or floating objects such as quays, SBM, container cranes, buoys etc.
  • Grounding
  • Ship board fires
  • Loss of power underway
  • Parting of mooring lines
  • Cargo damage due to ship motions

These incidents result in delays to cargo, financial loss, loss of life or property or both.  They can even impact a countries economy, take as an example a major oil spill that occurs during one of these incidents. How can we improve and avoid such incidents and casualties?  There have been numerous initiatives related to technical developments and improvements in training. RADAR, ARPA, GPS, ECDIS, VTMS and AIS all support navigating and help in avoiding collisions. Such technologies provide us with continuous position indication and monitoring. The latest technology that helps in recording such situations/ Incidents/Accidents is the VDR (Voyage Data Recorder). This helps trainers/ ship managers/ port operators/ Coast guards to reconstruct any incident, compare the experience of the incident from several perspectives and explore “What if” scenarios.  This all helps identify and understand the root cause of the incident.

Regrettably, many navigation incidents are the result of a failure to implement basic navigational practices such as maintaining a proper lookout, forward plotting your own vessels position and other vessels in heavy traffic areas to determine the risk of collision. Such errors combined with fatigue often combine as the root cause of navigation incidents. Even with the most modern technology human beings (Seafarers) remain the most important navigation instruments. There is currently no industry requirement nor standard to audit navigation activities. A ship normally spends most of its time at sea where navigation is the principle activity being undertaken but that activity is not monitored or audited in the way many ships activities already are, think waste log books as a comparison. Ports also are not subject to mandatory audit in respect of safe navigation despite being critical infrastructure for trade.

How much does it cost to investigate a major collision, grounding, ship breaks or fire? How much does it cost to resolve the incident/ accident by repairs to damage, payment of claims and insurances etc? So much cheaper to monitor and ensure the practices and procedures that prevent incidents are in place and followed. Shipping companies/ Port operators should enforce auditing/inspecting activities on a regular basis and identifying and correcting problems before they create an actual loss/accident. We think navigation audits of both ship and port are essential services to improve our safety performance.

Perhaps, everyone should adopt the tagline “Learning never ends”. During audits/inspections, shortcomings should be identified, the individuals (Pilots, Ship masters, Crew) shown what is wrong and why it is wrong.  Then we should help them put the correct practices in place.  Non- compliance does need reporting and monitoring to company/ port officials for a follow up on the corrective actions but that is not the key aim. The key aim of audit is creating improvements to how we currently work. Many pilots, ship masters, officers and crew (shipboard or land side) have just not had the opportunity to see how things could be done more safely and effectively.  They are set in their ways and have not had better processes and procedures explained. Always seeking to improve and getting new thoughts and insights contributes to avoiding incidents and casualties, supports improving a poor safety record. The audit process should be about learning and improvement not checking and punishment.

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