COLUMN | Are cruise passengers aware of the dangers? [Tug Times]

The recent drama involving the passenger ship Viking Sky is rapidly fading from the collective consciousness, and in the aftermath everyone is playing the traditional game of blame the captain. The argument seems to be that he should not have sailed, because a Hurtigruten passenger ship which was in port at the same time decided not to risk the bad weather.

This is extremely short sighted, in my opinion, because ships are actually designed to go to sea in bad weather, and we do not know what prompted the other vessel to stay in port. Perhaps it could afford the extra time. Perhaps it was considerably smaller. Whatever the reason, it is not a valid argument to condemn a man based upon what others were doing.

Professional salvors have been warning for years that it is only a matter of time before we have a major passenger ship disaster which will make Titanic pale into insignificance. It almost happened with Costa Concordia, and perhaps it almost happened again in Norway, but we got away with it on those occasions. What worries the salvors is the thought of a large passenger ship getting into trouble in a major storm miles from land with up to 8,000 people at risk and no earthly way of saving so many souls in bad weather.

In this regard, Viking Sky provides some useful illustrations of the problems which will arise. Amateur video taken during the incident shows furniture (and even a couple of very large plant containers) sliding around the public areas and threatening to cripple anyone who got in the way. Once upon a time, furniture was tied down to prevent this, but I suppose modern interior designers want flexibility and simply can’t live with petty safety restrictions, daahling!

Sadly, it is not the designers who were injured in the chaos on board, and it is not the designers who will end up in prison, or being sued by the passengers for the injuries they sustained.

Consider, too, the attempt to rescue the passengers. This could not be done by other vessels because it was too rough, so five helicopters were employed. Had the vessel not been stricken within a stone’s throw of the Norwegian coast, it is unlikely helicopters would have been available, but in this case they were and the brave men and women in their crews worked around the clock to get people off. From published accounts, the helicopters worked for around 18 hours and evacuated more than 450 people before the weather improved and the ship could be escorted into the nearest safe port.

Think about that for a moment. Five helicopters available, a short run to the shore, highly trained professional pilots and crews, and they only managed to evacuate about one third of the people on board. Imagine the problems when there are 8,000 people and the ship is 100 miles off the coast. The brutal fact is that, in such circumstances, the people simply do not get off and, unless the weather moderates, they are probably doomed. I do not remember reading about that possibility in any of the cruise brochures.

So that is what worries the salvors, and they genuinely try to think of ways to save lives as well as property in such scenarios. But at the moment we do not have the means to do so, and passenger ships keep getting bigger.

The owners, Viking Ocean Cruises, are not a bunch of ratbags and the ship was well built. It even complied with the SOLAS Safe Return to Port rules, so there was massive redundancy and all the technology to prevent an unfortunate breakdown off the coast. Yet down it broke.

There was speculation about the reasons for the breakdown. One early suggestion was that the big waves caused air to be sucked into the cooling water system, which overheated the engines and caused them to shut down. Another postulated that precipitates in the fuel tanks were disturbed by the swirling fuel and blocked the filters, thus starving the engines of fuel. However, the initial investigation revealed that the culprit was the luboil. Despite the levels being within prescribed limits, the rolling caused the low level alarms to be activated, and this triggered an automatic shutdown.

Viking immediately changed their procedures and assured the public that “this issue could not be repeated”. Sadly, I do not share their optimism.

It is interesting to note that the latest edition of CHIRP’s excellent Maritime FEEDBACK magazine1 contains details of six recent incidents where engines failed to start properly. Having described causes such as blocked filters, pump failures and starting air problems, CHIRP included the following advice:

Sumps still need to be checked with many engines having a “running” and “stopped” level which should be adhered to. Additionally, weather conditions should be considered because rough weather can cause confusing oil level readings such that a low oil level might not be identified by engineers and this might prevent an engine start when required. Rough seas can result in dirt and debris being stirred up and drawn into fuel and lubricating systems which in turn may cause filters to block more rapidly than usual.

This is not rocket science, and when the Viking Sky case was first reported a group of retired mariners to which I belong spotted the likely cause straight away. One former chief engineer reminded us of a class of ship we had all sailed on and reminisced about the need to have lubricating oil slopping out of every orifice whenever the ships entered heavy weather. He probably used more technical terms, but you get my drift.

Perhaps automation is eroding these old skills, but the recent CHIRP reports illustrate that automatic shutdowns are not always the answer to a maiden’s prayers. I understand that shutting down is designed to prevent damage to the machinery, but if it also causes ships to pile up on a rocky coast in bad weather then perhaps the engineers (and the bridge team) should be given a choice before the shut down is activated.

It may also be time to revisit the provisions of the Safe Return to Port rules, because in this case the ship was unable to return to port safely despite all the technology.

I suspect that the bright young things who designed the Safe Return to Port system are quite similar to the bright young things who are now working on autonomous vessels. The professional salvors will already be worrying about likely disaster scenarios when these vessels are let loose upon our oceans, although it would be only human if some of them are also salivating at the thought of the additional business which is coming their way.

1Alan Loynd is also the editor of Maritime FEEDBACK magazine

Alan Loynd

Alan Loynd is a master mariner with extensive seagoing and shore experience, especially in the areas of salvage and towage. He is the former CEO of the renowned Hong Kong Salvage and Towage company. He now runs his own marine consultancy and was chairman of the International Tugmasters Association.