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NEWS AND VIEWS JANUARY 2010  

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The Ocean Lark, from the Internet

 

THE OCEAN LARK

The Ocean Lark was going to be my main topic today, until last Tuesday. For those who may not have kept up with the marine press, this vessel was a 1973 built anchor-handling tug. It was built in Norway and had passed through the hands of a number of owners before becoming the property of Intone Pte Ltd a Singapore company, and subsidiary of Labroy Shipping. The vessel was registered in Singapore. The Ocean Lark sank on 6th January with the loss of 11 of the 13 crew members, all of them Indonesian, while on passage from Batam to Matak in Indonesia.

The Singapore marine authorities have issued press releases as the rescue efforts have progressed, and as the bodies of the other crew members have been found. Since it was the SMA media department which issued the updates, and suggested that anyone who wanted to know more could email them, I emailed them. My question was, when were they going to carry out an investigation into the loss? I have not received a reply. The best anyone has been able to come up with was a suggestion that it gets a bit rough out there.

This disaster to an offshore vessel reminded me that the Demas Victory sank just outside Doha last June with the loss of 30 lives. In an attempt to find out whether an investigation was to be carried out I emailed people, and in the end called the Department of Transport of the St Vincent and Grenadines Government. I was given two phone numbers both of which were permanently engaged. Incidentally the "Marine" page of the St V & G Department of Transport website used to be completely empty. Today I don't know how it stands because their whole web presence is being re-vamped. However, they did have an email address, so I wrote it a message. It was returned as an error.

There are 270 offshore vessels registered in St Vincent and the Grenadines. I think its about time they sorted themselves out.

And getting back to the loss of these vessels. The best anyone has come up with in both cases has been "Well it gets a bit rough out there." For heavens sake. They are offshore ships. If they are stable and the doors are all shut they should remain afloat in any weather. If they did not remain afloat there was a structural failure, a mechanical failure or possibly some form of mis-management. Seafarers in the offshore industry need to know the score.

DISASTERS

Sitting here in the security of my office I can only imagine the distress currently being felt by the population of Haiti in the aftermath of the recent earthquake. The figures for casualties are almost more than the mind can accept, and in this situation as is generally the case, the well healed nations of the western world are offering aide of one sort or another and sending people with dogs and expertise to try and dig survivors out of the rubble.

A few days have passed since the earthquake occurred. The streets are apparently full of people too afraid to go back into their houses, where they are still standing, because of the possibility of aftershocks. The grounds of the hospitals are full of dead bodies and people are still sleeping in the same areas. There is the beginnings of a process of burying people in mass graves. What else could they do?

There is as yet not much sign that the anyone is getting any help. There is aide on the tarmac at the airport, but no means of distributing it, and in UK listeners to the radio are hearing that the experts sent to help find people trapped under the rubble have yet to land. Yesterday they circled the airport in their aircraft for so long that eventually they began to run out of fuel and had to land elsewhere. Indeed the Haitian authorities were, by yesterday night, asking people not to send any more aircraft.

At this point, from our respective armchairs we are often prompted to pontificate about how things could be done better. Indeed, after every natural disaster, and lets face it there are plenty of them mostly in the most deprived areas of the world, the politicians pledge that they will do more, and better in the future. Apparently the UN has set up a disaster fund as a result of the 2004 Tsunami, but as calm has settled over the world once more the urgency has gone out of things and as a result the fund does not have any money.

From my armchair, it seems to me that far too much reliance is placed on aircraft. They are very large, and require a great deal of support of various sorts, and have a very low carrying capacity. Even a large aircraft can probably only carry about 150 tons of stuff, and it takes one of those things with a big door in the front - or the back to carry vehicles and earth moving equipment. And then the next thing that the governments of the world do is send warships. The first vessel to arrive at Haiti was an American coastguard cutter, and the primary vessel to be sent by the US government is an aircraft carrier. It is apparently due today with lots of helicopters on board.

I feel that in this situation, not uniquely, merchant ships could be of considerable assistance. In the US Gulf of Mexico there are large numbers of extremely versatile craft, a couple of which would make a great difference. Probably in Morgan City or Fourchon there are a couple of offshore vessels with large cranes on the afterdeck, a cargo capacity of 1000 tons on deck and tankage for 500 tons of fresh water. Such vessels can be hired at a moments notice, as we all know, can be loaded in a few hours, and have high transit speeds. Probably they could have been alongside in Port-au-Prince for 24 hours by now. They have accommodation for large numbers of people, conference facilities and fantastic communications systems.

The last time an offshore vessel was used in an emergency was as a result of the explosion on the Kursk on August 12th 2000. The Normand Pioneer arrived on the site with the submarine and its launch facilities on board on 17th. Sadly they were unable to rescue anybody, but the reason for its mobilisation is that the organisation which administers the operation of the UK submarine rescue facilities monitors the capabilities of offshore vessels, so that if they need one they can find one which is suitable with the minimum of delay, hire it, and install the launch system and the submarine.

There are merchant ships in service which are appropriate for virtually any  activity, including providing support in emergencies. Surely it is time the organisations which are at the forefront of providing help after disasters recognised this, instead of just hiring aircraft and firing them off in the general direction of the problem.

Addendum on 19th January. The progress of the provision of help to the poor people of Haiti has not changed my view. Although the port is apparently closed the ships of the type I have described do not even need to be alongside. Their DP systems will maintain their location a few metres off. All they need is a clear space within range of their crane. Meanwhile at the Port-au-Prince airport two days ago the military were passing packages from hand to hand, as they unloaded aircraft. Yesterday their technology had improved. They were using a handcart. Somewhere within these emergency teams they need some materials handling experts.

EXPLOSIVE UNDERPANTS

Compared with what I have just written this item is almost lighthearted. On Christmas day a man on an aircraft over America attempted to detonate explosives in his underpants, fortunately without success. As a result the countries of the western world have been reviewing their airport security arrangements and found them wanting. In UK some sort of enhanced scanners are to be installed and there seems to be a possibility that devices which can "see through" clothing may be trialled.

There are a few things to consider here. The first is why do things have to happen before anyone actually does anything. If I had been called upon to assess the risk of terrorist attack on Uk airports the first thing the assessment would have determined would have been that some-one could drive a vehicle through the front doors of virtually every terminal in the country, and that there-fore they should be protected by vehicle proof barriers. Why did some-one have to drive a four wheel drive through the doors of Edinburgh Airport before anything was done, or alternatively if it was very very unlikely that this would ever happen again why are the entrances to airports now being protected. Similarly, of one asked an explosives expert whether it would be possible for a terrorist to smuggle explosives through the current level or airport security, he would have said "yes it was possible". Should they have waited until some-one actually succeeded in doing it before reviewing their processes.

So lets move on. While airport security remains questionable the Americans are still pursuing seafarers. If I read this right some form of swipe card readers are being installed on all vessels frequenting US ports, so that crew members can be identified, even on supply boats, some of them with as few as five crew. And while every port in Europe and America is now fortified, on 26th November 2008 a bunch of guys dressed in black carrying bags of automatic weapons embarked on a small ship in a Pakistani port and landed in the port area of Mumbai without causing anyone to ask any questions. So what good are all these fences and ISPS manuals?

There is a body of opinion which considers that some form of profiling would be a more appropriate means of ensuring the safety of passenger aircraft, but this is being resisted since it would tend to focus on specific religious and ethnic groups. Meanwhile the poor seafarer seems to be being assumed to be a terrorist by supposedly the most civilised countries of the world. 

Well, that's enough for this month.

 Victor Gibson. January 2010.

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