The ship was a 20-year-old OBO converted to carry heavy ore, registered and classed in Cyprus. The name was the most recent of a long list of names she had had since she was built in 1979.
She was loaded with 120,000 tonnes of Pilbara iron ore. After leaving the Dampier berth, she developed a 15-degree list to starboard even before dropping the pilot. As the list increased, the ship went to anchor and divers were sent down to investigate. They reported about 80 metres of bottom plating set up to about a metre in places and in the middle of this, a crack wide enough to allow the diver to get his shoulders through. Surprisingly, the bottom showed no signs of grounding, the antifouling being unmarked. The number two port wing double bottom tank was open to the sea and was flooded to the waterline.
A fine puzzle for all who attended her. In fact, it was a puzzle that was to play out for over a six-month period as the ship sat at anchor off Dampier.
The ship was inundated with surveyors; Class and flag state, P&I, charterers, cargo, loss of hire underwriters, you name it. There was a cast of thousands attending. I was appointed by the loss of hire underwriters to report on the condition of the vessel and comment on the proximate cause of the flooding.
“The loss of life was not even considered.”
After some considerable deliberation and by process of elimination, it was eventually agreed by all that the ship had probably cracked due to fatigue. The hull was built from 350 Mpa grade steel, a higher tensile strength than the usual 250 Mpa shipbuilding grade and although strengthened, it was susceptible to a shorter fatigue life. It had gone through so many loading-stress reversals over its twenty-year life that fatigue of the steel at midships was likely to have caused the crack to develop. The last loading was the straw that broke the ship’s back.
So, what to do with the ship? It was calculated that it was going to cost more than the cargo was worth to trans-ship it to another vessel. The ship was a constructive total loss but it remained afloat at anchor off Dampier. Some difficult decisions had to be made.
My suggestion was to sea-dump the ship (and cargo) in deep water after de-fuelling and cleaning (oils in particular). We had done this before with smaller vessels and, while not favourable with the regulatory bodies, it could be done. This suggestion was met with a frosty reception by the owners. Meanwhile, Class and P&I cover had been withdrawn, and consequently all insurances were void.
The owners were placed in an almost untenable position. Their solution was to take a huge gamble and sail the ship. If she was lost, they would have avoided the cost of de-fuelling and cleaning her. The loss of life was not even considered.
Ultimately the crack was patched and the ship was ballasted upright. Think of this. It was 1999. They were sailing an uninsured ship with no Class or P&I cover to China. It was a dangerous and possibly illegal gamble. In disbelief I heard the ship had sailed away. The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) was conspicuously silent. I advised the master that all the crew on-board should sleep on deck in their life jackets. Whether they did or not remains unclear. I don’t think even the crew were aware how fast these iron ore ships sink.
Incredibly, the ship arrived at its destination port unscathed and the cargo was unloaded. What became of her next was a mystery but all indications were that she was scrapped. Twenty-three years ago – only recent times.
“The cost, compactness, and versatility of marine surveying drones are improving by the day.”
Could this happen today? Survey techniques have changed over the years particularly with the development of drones. I recently had the opportunity to try one of these devices out with some remarkable results. It was tremendously manoeuvrable and precise. With its on-board video camera linked to an smartphone, it could operate over an incredible range of accessibility. The whole device, camera and all, was about 300 mm in diameter, just a bit bigger than a surveyor’s head.
All the difficult places that require a survey, particularly tanks, could be easily inspected without ever getting into your overalls. Claustrophobia would never present a problem in all those tight places that you swear you would never enter unless you were getting paid. Costs would come down with no more need for “top hands” to sit outside the tank access or expensive scaffolding for those hard-to-reach areas. Cargo hold surveys could be done from the deck. And dry-docking surveys would be a breeze.
In fact, on-board inspections by the ship’s crew could reduce maintenance costs and arrest defects before they become critical.
The cost, compactness, and versatility of these drones are improving by the day. I believe that all the classification societies are developing rules for the use of drones for the survey of hulls. Not only is the steelwork inspected but each space can be recorded for future reference. They’re ideal for tracing faults, causes of failure, or alleviating failures.
Could this ship have been saved? It’s not unreasonable that the beginning of the crack could have been detected long before the ship, its crew and its cargo were placed in peril. We will never know.
Submissions wanted! Do you have an exciting, amusing, or downright dangerous anecdote from your time in the maritime world? Send your submissions to: [email protected].
Founder of Maritime Engineers, a multi-region maritime consultancy with clients in the oil and gas industry, navy, commercial shipping and marine insurance, Kent Stewart is our resident expert on commercial shipping and the offshore industries.