COLUMN | Seacor Power: a sobering note on incident reporting [Offshore Accounts]

Photo: US Coast Guard
Photo: US Coast Guard

The tragic sinking of the liftboat Seacor Power with the loss of thirteen lives when it capsized on April 13 in a squall three hours after departing Port Fourchon, Louisiana, brought to mind the capsizing of Ezion's liftboat Teras Lyza, which turned over and sank off the Philippines under tow in bad weather in 2018. We covered that sinking here.

The need for transparent and open reporting by flag states on accidents is vital.

No lessons from Teras Lyza

At the time, we urged the Singapore flag state to publish a report into the sinking of the Ezion-owned unit even though there was no loss of life, which was only because Teras Lyza was fortuitously unmanned. We noted that the capsize of a manned liftboat could result in death. In the case of Seacor Power, thirteen men were killed in the Gulf of Mexico.

Singapore's Ministry of Transport has still not published an accident investigation report into the loss of Teras Lyza, and, indeed, has not published a single accident investigation report on its website since January 2020, a staggering delay of fifteen months.

Singapore benefits enormously from its status as the offshore hub for South East Asia. As the richest country in East Asia, Singapore should do better with its reporting responsibilities.

No lessons from Bourbon Rhode

Nor has the Luxembourg flag state published any further information on the causes of the loss of Bourbon Rhode since August (see coverage here and here).  Eleven seafarers were killed when the Bourbon-owned anchor handling tug sank in a hurricane in the Atlantic whilst in transit between the Canary Islands and Guyana en route to start a charter for Saipem.

One might wonder why a landlocked grand-duchy should be the flag state for an offshore vessel trading across the Atlantic for French owners, but the release of its corporate database by Le Monde and others showed the seamy side of Luxembourg's corporate governance, shell companies, and tax minimisation (here).

Luxembourg benefits enormously from its status as a legal tax haven within the EU. As the richest country in Europe, Luxembourg should do better with its reporting responsibilites.

NTSB has a better track record

Let's hope the National Transport Safety Board (NTSB) in the United States can provide more comprehensive reporting on the tragic loss of Seacor Power. The safety record of liftboats as a whole does require scrutiny, as we have highlighted.

After the loss of Teras Lyza, two more liftboats were lost in the Gulf of Mexico – Ram XVIII through the collapse of a leg in November 2018 (here), and Kristin Faye through a punch through in September 2019 (here).

Mercifully, there were no deaths in those two previous incidents, but the loss of three units in the space of just 18 months in the same area ought to be a cause of major concern to the NTSB, and to the industry as a whole. The liftboat industry must make some wholesale changes to its procedures and practices. The NTSB accident report should be a milestone in that process.

Loss of Chinese unit makes five

July 2020 saw a fifth accident of note in China, albeit with completely different dynamics. The jackup installation vessel Zhen Jiang suffered a catastrophic failure whilst installing turbines at the CSIC Jiangsu Rudong H3-1 offshore wind farm. The vessel's jacking system failed during turbine installation, and when the tide rose, the leg was stuck, and Zhen Jiang took on water.

Reports suggest that the watertight door to the engine room was left open, which led to flooding. The crew were evacuated safely but the jackup required salvaging.

More on the unit and its design is here.

Commercial pressure?

Of particular relevance to the Bourbon Rhode, Teras Lyza and Seacor Power cases is the possibility of commercial pressure being applied to masters to take vessels into marginal weather conditions. Talos Energy, the charterer of Seacor Energy, issued a statement that it was not responsible for the vessel sailing into the storm:

"The Seacor Power was in port for service and inspections for several days prior to its departure. The vessel was not at a Talos facility and was fully under the command of its captain and Seacor Marine, including when to depart the port," the company said.

Ill-advised social media at Talos

Newspaper Houma Today reported (here) that family members of the missing seafarers were furious that a senior manager responsible for safety at Talos Energy, Robert Sheninger, had spent the weekend deep-sea fishing off the coast of Venice, Louisiana, not far from where the search efforts were continuing. He posted photos and comments on his fun day out on Facebook, provoking a firestorm of criticism online.

Did nobody learn the social media lessons of BP's CEO in the Deepwater Horizon disaster (here)?

Lawsuits may shed more light

The families of lost crew members are now suing both Seacor and Talos. One lawsuit states that the companies "knew or should have known of the deteriorating weather conditions on April 13," according to local news (here). The lawsuit claims that the death of the crewmember whose family are seeking damages "was in part caused by the legal fault, negligence, carelessness, and omission of Seacor, Talos, and Semco, which built the liftboat that capsized."

Outsiders may complain that America has an overly litigious culture, and that lawsuits for damages will never bring back the lost loved ones. However, in situations like that of Bourbon Rhode, where a vessel is sunk internationally, sailing under a flag of convenience, the families of the dead crewmembers never have the chance to gain legal redress.

Instead, they are given "take it or leave it" compensation from the insurers and have signed away their rights to go to court. That's assuming that the courts of Luxembourg, or St Kitts and Nevis, or Panama, or wherever, would take the case in the first place.

The American court system may be expensive, arbitrary, and adversarial, but it may also throw more light on the tragic circumstances where thirteen lives were lost on April 13.

Nobody can bring those men back, but preventing another accident and preventing future loss of life is something that everyone in the industry should make their number one priority, even if it causes embarrassment to vessel operators and flag states.

When accidents go un-investigated, more will happen in future.

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