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NEWS AND VIEWS OCTOBER 2011

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FOR  GLOSSARY OF TERMS CLICK HERE 

 

THE RENA

The international shipping event of the month has surely been the grounding of the container ship Rena on the Astrolabe reef, a few miles off the coast of New Zealand, on 5th October. The distress in that country has gradually built up as the ship has fallen apart, and heavy oil has started leaking from the fuel tanks and floating ashore. Efforts have been made to pump the remaining 1700 tonnes of fuel out of the ship, but the available fuel barge seems to have been damaged in the initial effort. While it was away being repaired the weather worsened and as a result the ship took up a list to starboard, started shedding containers and breaking up.

Heavy fuel oil started leaking into the sea and eventually began to float ashore. The press were then able to present pictures of oiled seabirds to the public. The New Zealand government resolved to carry out an full investigation and arrested the master and the second officer, both Filipinos. The rest of the crew, except for another six were flown home by the ship-owners the Greek company Costamare. The Rena is one of its 61 ship fleet, mostly chartered out to other operators. The Rena for instance was chartered to MSC together with several other ships from the Costamare fleet. . Meanwhile the New Zealand population is so enraged by the disaster that apparently they have taken to attacking the small Filipino community and the captain and other crew members from the ship are being housed at a secret address for their safety.

So now we get to the important bit. Why did this happen? How did a container ship run up on a reef when doubtless it was provided with an effective GPS system which would tell everybody where the ship was? No doubt the captain would say, it could happen to anybody. Maybe the GPS threw its hand in, maybe the second mate fell asleep because they had just left a port after 24 hours solid work and some-one had to keep watch. Maybe they were just bored because they had crossed the Pacific for 20 days without seeing anything. Maybe some of the crew were poorly trained and had been given responsibilities in excess of their capabilities. Who knows? Will the investigation find out the truth. Is it possible that since the shipping business is ultra competitive, someone will decide that all container ships visiting New Zealand ports are to be of the highest standard and that therefore they should have a minimum charter rate of... Do you know I got this far, but I can't work out how shipowners can be legislated into being honest!

THE MERMAID VIGILANCE

The weekly e-newsletter "Tugs and Towing" re-reported an very unusual and on the face of it distressing event that had occurred in the Gulf of Mexico, and involved the Mermaid Maritime ship Mermaid Vigilance. This ship was apparently working for Geokinetics carrying out seismic work and here's the nub of it, also acting as a standby vessel for a lift barge the "Trinity II".

The report, which extends to a couple of thousand words, says that with the onset of a hurricane on 8th September one of the legs of the lift barge collapsed and the crew of ten decided to abandon what was left of the structure, apparently after sending a mayday and communicating with the ship, which according to the crew who survived, chose to turn for the shore, instead of going to the help of the Trinity II. One of the survivors apparently said "The vessel abandoned the crew of the Trinity II their horrifying fate in the storm-ridden seas of the Bay of Campeche, and cut and ran for base and shelter."

In the event the crew ended up riding out the storm on some sort of cork float, one assumes like we used to see on the ferry running from Hull across the Humber (in 1965). Distressingly after a search, and actually three days later seven of the crew were located, and at least one was dead, although still on the raft. It seems that two of the crew members are taking action through the courts in Texas against the ship for abandoning them. We can't help feeling that there is more to this story that meets the eye. Will we ever know the truth?

THE CARRIAGE OF SPONGE IRON

It is now almost a lifetime since I had to know anything about the carriage of general cargo. Was it when I was up for Mate's in about 196... and we learnt about how to carry grain and rice, and I must say subsequently did both and survived. But those of us who have worked in the offshore industry have a tendency to forget what it is like to carry more complex cargoes, orf at least cargoes which if not treated properly will result in the ship either catching fire or sinking. Hence I was amazed at the level of care that is required for the carriage of "sponge iron". First of all I needed to know what sponge iron is, and it turns out to be a refined type of iron ore. Probably the word we might use is smelting as a means of turning iron ore into iron, but apparently this requires a multi-million pound plant, so it is possible to convert the raw product into iron by using gas or coal. But this is not really the important bit.

The resulting product is carried in bulk in merchant ships and the product DRI(A), DRI(B) and DRI(C) has to be carried with great care. According to an alert from the Steamship Mutual Risk Association the hatch covers must be air tight, and tested, in most cases carriage is only permitted under an inert gas blanket. The ship should be able to take the temperature of the cargo in several places. The oxygen concentration within the holds should be maintained at a level less than 5% throughout the voyage. The alert suggests that the inert gas level within the holds should be maintained throughout the voyage, and that some means of doing this should be provided. Use of the ship's CO2 systems should be avoided. If ventilation is used then the fans should be explosion proof.

Ships and lives have been lost carrying sponge iron, and the thought occurs to me that if it is not possible to prevent a large ship running up on a reef, how on earth can the flag states, and registries where ships are registered and operated, ensure that the very complex systems and levels of skill are available to ensure the safety of the vessels when carrying cargoes like this.

Anybody about to carry sponge iron in any of its forms should research for the correct information in the appropriate formal documentation, and should not rely in any way on this journalistic comment.

SHETLAND VTS GAPS

I read in the Telegraph, the journal of Nautilus the marine union that there was a bit of a problem at Sullom Voe when a VTS operator went sick and there was no cover. The article went further to say that the Shetlands Islands Council had cut costs since in earlier days the service had been carried out by the pilots.

Although I try not to make this page a reminiscence by an aged seafarer, I can't resist recounting a story from my past, when I was master of the OIL seismic ship the Oil Hunter. We spent a great deal of time doing work to the west of the Shetland Islands, but of course coming and going from Lerwick which is in the east. To come and go we habitually made our way between the islands and exited into the Atlantic through Yell Sound, the approach to Sullom Voe. In poor weather we used to hide in a small bay which we had sounded ourselves in order to determine its depth, and sometime we would  anchor just off what is now the Sullom Voe oil terminal in very strong southerly winds.

At one point after we had become quite experienced at this transit using the Shetland Islands Pilot, Sullom Voe became a pilotage area, and some-one asked us to take a pilot for the transit. Well, we told them to stuff off.

LEARNING

I would not normally make an excuse for a shorter version of the newsletter, but this month I am out every day learning Spanish. It has made me realise that I spend a great deal of my time working on this website. But very occasionally someone will email me and tell me how much they like the site, and so I carry on.

And in a couple of weeks I might be able to include a Spanish supplement!

Victor Gibson. October 2011.

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