Ships that go bump in the night are an all-too-common occurrence. Alex Hughes reports
In recent months, there have been a number of high profile cases of ships striking a quay, either while at berth or while attempting to berth; Chittagong (Bangladesh), Vaasa (Finland), Jebel Ali (UAE) and Luka Koper (Slovenia) all got a bit to close to comfort with their customers.
While the industry obviously need to learn lessons fro these incidents, Nick Cutmore, secretary general of the International Maritime Pilots’ Association (IMPA), identifies a number of broader, indirectly related issues that are not easy to resolve.
As an example, he cites the ongoing debate at the International Maritime Organisation over minimum engine power; it’s a debate that IMPA may decide to enter, since it is impacting on what pilots are having to do when entering or exiting a port.
“There is now a whole class of NYK box ships that pilots board with great trepidation, given their perceived lack of power,” says Mr Cutmore.
“Our main concern is how to bring a 400m long vessel safely alongside the berth when many modern vessels are simply under-powered." He notes that manoeuvring ships in 30-knot winds needs a huge amount of power, however modern ships have small propellers, low-powered engines (to reduce CO2 emissions) and small rudders (to reduce drag).
“Manoeuvring very large container vessels in port appears to have been very low down on the list of initial design criteria; instead, the emphasis was clearly on making long ocean passages economically,” he says.
There are other complications, too. On board software management systems are there principally to protect the propeller shaft from stress. So, if the pilot calls for 'half ahead' to 'kick' a vessel around a tight corner, the on board computer may not allow that.
“Software on board ships is there to ensure economy and to control emissions. However, to the credit of some companies, pilots are now allowed to override the torque management system when under pilotage to help make berthing safer,” he says. “They have to do this because berthing safely is not mutully compatible with manoeuvring economically at low levels of emissions.”
Another of the major headaches for pilots is that the dead slow speeds of some very large container vessels are often higher than the maximum speed of a tug escorting them, which can cause all sorts of problems in tight manoeuvring conditions.
IMPA has also informed accident investigators that it doesn’t believe current training software is good enough to replicate the handling of large vessels. It came to this conclusion after talking to pilots training on simulators, who say computer-based training exercises, unusually, are not like handling the real thing. More needs to be done to address this.
That said, Mr Cutmore stresses that the majority of pilots are trained very well.
In Southampton, he notes that a specialist group has been given additional training to help them handle the very largest vessels.
“Even so, they have to make very fine judgements, since there is little flexibility in manouvre when making a sharp turn with under-keel clearance of one metre. Nor is there a special turning basin at Southampton, either, so they have to turn the vessel with just a few tens of metres clearance at either end with just two tugs to assist.”
However, pilots do have portable pilot units (PPUs) with them, which have highly specialised manoeuvring software and positioning information. This is crucial is aiding them to make sharp turns. They also have the most up to date hydrographic information at their fingertips.
“Pilots are therefore as prepared as they can be. However, I will be blunt: some pilots don’t want to handle these very large vessels. Manoeuvring with the sort of margins that are now expected is not what they came into the profession to do. Worse still, it is rare for ports to actually consult with pilots prior to them accepting a certain size of vessel in their port.”
Lack of tugs
If all that weren’t bad enough, IMPA is also of the opinion that some ports today handling the largest vessels afloat actually have inadequate tug provision available.
“It’s not an unusual problem,” Mr Cutmore says, although declines to name names.
But this attitude is indicative of the fact that most ports see support services as a cost and only invest in them when they absolutely have to. Modern tugs are extremely powerful, although whether all ports are disposed towards acquiring them in the numbers required remains another issue altogether.
For the same reasons, IMPA cautions against tug and pilot deregulation, believing this will inevitably result in corners being cut to save money, stressing that deregulation of pilotage has been proven to reduce standards and quality.
Laurence Jones of specialist maritime insurer the TT Club concedes that while the most recent quay strikes have been high profile in nature, such occurrences happen all too regularly. Ships colliding with the quay can be the result of a number of issues, he says, citing examples such as engine failure; master, pilot or tug error; bad weather; and so on.
“With the advent of bigger ships and the resulting cascading effect, most ports and terminals will be handling bigger ships than they have experienced in the past. There is, however, no overriding reason to expect a marked trend as a result of that.”
Although unable to comment on the most recent cases, he says that the main causes of quay strikes are ports having to berth vessels of a size that they were not previously used to handling.
“Equally, since the berthing operation is highly dependent on human interactions, many incidents reflect this factor,” he says.
Mr Jones hopes that the global awareness of the more recent collisions will encourage ports and terminals to review the appropriateness of training, systems and procedures for berthing, and implement any necessary changes to ensure the berthing and de-berthing of all ships using the port can be handled without incident.
If the number of incidents related to mooring continues to rise, TT Club would take action: "If ... specific risk mitigation measures can be developed, then TT Club would certainly make the industry aware of these," he says.
TOO CLOSE TO COMFORT
An investigation is under way by the UK Marine Accident Investigation Branch following a major vessel quay strike at Jebel Ali port’s Terminal 1 on May 4. The incident happened while the UK-flagged Centaurus, a 11,388 teu CMA CGM containership, was berthing.
Its forepeak hit the legs of a six-month old quayside gantry crane, which then collapsed, hitting several trucks and buildings. A second crane was also impacted, shifting off its rails, but remaining upright and stable and was subsequently assessed for safety.
Up to ten workers on the quay were reported injured during the failed manoeuvre, although all but one – who suffered a broken arm and leg – had only minor injuries. During berthing, various terminal tractors and cars were moving about freely in the area directly behind and below the crane.
“DP World’s terminal safety teams responded immediately to the incident and head office global safety teams joined them on site within five minutes,” said the company. “Working with external emergency response teams, the area was evacuated and an exclusion zone created. Safety drones were also deployed to survey the area, locate anyone in need of medical assistance and ensure the safety of the responding crews.”
With the investigation still underway at the time of publication, DP World could not confirm the reason for the strike to Port Strategy, but it said it believed that the vessel was trying to make a very sharp turn with just half a metre of under-keel clearance.
However, DP World emphasised that it had never had a similar incident before.
Asked whether any major changes have been made to berthing following the incident to make this procedure safer in future, a spokesperson said that the company was awaiting the findings of the investigation prior to reviewing procedures. It also did not want to comment as to why so many people were injured for the same reason.
The operator reiterated that “safety is a top priority" and that "measures to handle [larger container ships] are already in place".
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