COLUMN | The wind and the walruses [Tug Times]

Photo courtesy of Alan Loynd

Where I live, ‘tis the season for tug people to be jolly. The northeast monsoon is firmly established and ships are once again coming to grief and asking for help.

Why this happens more during the monsoon than during typhoon season is a bit of a mystery. Perhaps people take more precautions when they might encounter a typhoon, and so they forget that the monsoon can provide gale force winds and a nasty short, steep swell that is very unpleasant for smaller vessels.

Whatever the reason, reports of casualties are now coming in from around the region, and in one week we were told of several unfortunate incidents. In the Bangka Strait, which gets its fair share of bad weather – although, admittedly, not from the monsoon – two ships collided in bad weather with one of them sinking. Mercifully, it appears the crew were all rescued by passing vessels. Later, the Indonesian authorities admitted that human error may also have been a factor but, if in doubt, blame the bad weather.

Meanwhile, off Taiwan, a Guyanese freighter started listing due to the strong northeast monsoon and was said to be in critical condition. The master announced his intention to abandon ship, but it was too rough for rescue vessels or helicopters to get close so the crew were instructed to jump into the water, from whence the helicopters would winch them up. The master and three of his crew then decided they would stay on board, but the other four men jumped and were rescued. Amazingly, a few hours later, the master announced that the engines had been restarted, the ship’s pumps were working properly, and there was no further need for assistance.

One report said the rescue had been made more difficult “due to the strong current and bad walruses”.

“I remain the only fool the company produced who ever broke his towing wire.”

At around the same time, a Mongolian ship also started to list and suffer flooding, this time off Shanghai. The crew were rescued by helicopter, and it is believed the ship eventually capsized and sank. Conditions at the time were said to be winds of force eight gusting nine to ten, with eight- to 10-metre swells. Even allowing for a bit of on-scene exaggeration, the weather was abominable, and the Chinese rescue teams appear to have done a superb job.

This happened the day after a Liberian bulk carrier broke down in bad weather off Weihai in Shandong Province. A Beihai rescue tug was despatched but found the bulk carrier could not be towed because it kept veering off course. A second tug arrived to act as a drag and provide some directional stability, and with both tugs assisting, the bulk carrier was towed safely into port.

I have no idea why bulk carriers can sometimes be such pigs to tow, but the same thing happened to me one winter. I was delivering our brand-new ocean-going tug to Hong Kong from the shipyard in Japan when we picked up a disabled bulk carrier in similarly bad weather. Towing was almost impossible, and the bulker kept veering off to port and overtaking me. I sent for a second tug to act as drag, but in the meantime may have used a bit too much brute force in my efforts to control the ship, because our brand-new main towing wire broke. I still maintain there must have been a flaw in the wire.

We finished the voyage with the replacement tug doing the towing and me on the back end, so not my finest hour and I remain the only fool the company produced who ever broke his towing wire.

“Walruses are a much better excuse than strong winds and big waves, and are probably less predictable.”

Back to the present monsoon season, and a couple of days later, a small cargo ship started taking on water off the coast of Fujian province. The reason given was “due to strong wind and waves”. The entire crew took to the liferafts and were subsequently rescued by the Zhangzhou Maritime Safety Administration while their ship went to the bottom.

The same week, a Vietnamese ship got into trouble in the Gulf of Tonkin due to bad weather. Once again, it lost power and was taking on water. The crew were rescued, but three individuals refused to leave because their owners told them to remain and assist with salvage efforts. Sadly, reports then dried up so I have no idea what happened to the vessel or the remaining crewmembers. I hope they survived, and I hope the owner has been taken behind his office building and given a good beating, but probably not.

There are two points I want to make about these cases. The first is that the northeast monsoon is entirely predictable, yet year after year we see similar carnage in the South China Sea. In my experience, this is generally due to a combination of sub-standard vessels and crews who lack basic knowledge of stability, cargo stowage, cargo lashing, and the need for watertight integrity. I do not blame the crews, who are probably desperate for any form of employment, but the owners and regulators deserve to be held to account.

Many of the ships I see once they get into trouble could never have passed even a perfunctory port state control inspection, which implies that such inspections are not being carried out. I have been called to vessels where I would not have let my dog into the accommodation because it was so squalid, yet seafarers are forced to endure such conditions because nobody appears to care. As an industry, we should be ashamed.

My second point is that all the reports I referred to above were written in English by writers for whom it must have been their second or even third language. They are thus already more clever than me, and I have no desire to make fun of them, but I would love to know how where the “bad walruses” came from. I suspect the reporter relied on some form of spell checker rather than trusting his or her own facility with the language. Nonetheless, I really wish we had walruses in this part of the world. They are a much better excuse than strong winds and big waves, and are probably less predictable.

I hope you all get a simple, straightforward, and remunerative casualty this festive season, and it only remains for me to wish all our readers a Happy Christmas and a safe and successful New Walrus.

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 General Manager of the renowned Hong Kong Salvage and Towage company. He now runs his own marine consultancy and was chairman of the International Tugmasters Association.