Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Two Different Types of Freight Vessels Involved in Contrasting Cargo Ship Incidents

Whilst Eight Souls Perish in Tragic Accident the Skill of a Crew Avoids Major Disaster
Shipping News Feature

UK – With around 90% of the world’s trade being conducted via the ocean freight industry, accidents involving cargo ships are of course a regular feature of the world’s news. The spectacular demise of two specialised vessels just off the coast of Britain within 24 hours leaving eight crew dead however is notable as UK waters, although sometimes hazardous, are generally relatively safe in comparison to areas of the world where shipwrecks are often all too frequent.

The two incidents this week were dramatically different in nature, a cement carrier, the Cypriot registered Cemfjord, has observers commenting that she would appear to have snapped in half whilst heading through the Pentland Firth some 15 miles off the Caithness coast. Scottish based lifeboats and helicopters rushed to the scene when the alarm was raised by a local ferry, but, in scenes somewhat reminiscent of the MOL Comfort disaster, all that could be seen was the bow of the ship bobbing in the waves.

As no distress call was apparently sent by the ship it would seem that the mainly Polish crew were probably toward the aft of the vessel and taken by surprise when that section sank, with the stern presumably plummeting toward the seabed if indeed she broke up. The Cemfjord was bound for Runcorn from Aalborg in Denmark when she foundered and this is not the first time she has figured in controversy, she was held for three days by Runcorn authorities in 2013 for defects in her safety equipment, principally the inoperability of life boat equipment.

In July last year the ship ran aground in Denmark leading to the conviction of her captain at the time, a Russian who was sentenced to 35 days in prison and heavily fined and banned from taking charge of a ship for two years. His place was taken by Polish captain Pawel Chruscinski, who once described the Cemfjord as his ‘favourite ship’. Mr Chruscinski, married with a young daughter, was lost in the sinking.

Owner of the vessel, Brise Hamburg, has issued a statement on the disaster which can be seen here. Since the last report the now sunken vessel has been located on the seabed by a lighthouse tender, the Pharos, using sonar equipment.

The second shipwreck, if indeed 'wreck' is the proper term, is of an altogether different hue. All professionals will be aware of the ungainly look of a specialist car carrier and probably of the precise nature of stowing and securing of a cargo both extremely valuable and susceptible to damage. Such was the case with the Höegh Osaka which, shortly after leaving Southampton on Saturday January 3, developed a serious list.

Quick and decisive action by the Captain and Solent pilot saw the ship deliberately grounded on the Bramble Bank, which lies to the North of the Isle of Wight and becomes exposed to varying degrees at low tide, dependent on the phases of the moon. The ship is laden with millions of pounds worth of luxury cars including Range Rovers, Bentleys etc. plus construction machinery. Despite the ungainly look of such vessels incidents like this are comparatively rare, particularly when so close to port, but it would seem the crew’s timely action may have averted a major pollution incident.

The incident has highlighted the design of these mega carriers, much as the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster did for RoRo ferries and Nautilus International, the maritime professionals trade union, has stated that the subsequent investigation needs to focus on underlying issues rather than proximate causes. Nautilus Senior National Secretary Allan Graveson, criticised the design of such ships and praised the quality of those controlling the Höegh Osaka, saying:

“In reality, these vessels, both vehicle and livestock carriers, are built to the edge of safety for commercial reasons. Their design has gone beyond what is reasonable and these ships need a lot of careful management. There is manifest failure of the regulator that permits the design and operation of ships in this way. Improvements are required and we hope the investigation will examine the root causes of this incident. By running the ship onto the sandbank, [the pilot’s] quick-thinking and professionalism had helped to avert loss of life, environmental damage and potentially catastrophic blockage of a major UK port.”

The vessel's owner, Höegh Autoliners, has appointed Svitzer to compile a salvage plan and efforts to right the craft will proceed when feasible. The Brambles Bank is of course the site of one of Britain’s strange sporting events, the annual cricket match due to take place this year on August 31. Representatives of the two competing clubs which take turns to win the event, the Royal Southern Yacht club and the Island Sailing Club, commented they hoped the ship would ‘not leave too much of a divot’ in a game which rarely lasts an hour and often in ankle deep seawater.

Photo: The Cemfjord before she sank completely.