COLREGS Moment : Meeting situation gone bad….things that go “Bump” in the North Sea

Photo provided by the VBZR Vrijwillige Blankenbergse Zee Reddingsdienst

Something went dreadfully wrong off the coast of Belgium early Tuesday morning.  Whether it was a machinery malfunction, the misapplication of the International Collision Regulations (COLREGS) or other human element factor, a collision occurred between two merchant vessels – the 315-meter LNG carrier Al-Oraiq and the 130-meter cargo vessel Flinterstar.  As can be seen below in the YouTube video of their AIS data, the incident happened off the port city of Zeebrugge.

Of the 12 man crew on the cargo vessel which was severely damaged, 11 apparently were rescued unscathed, while the 12th crew member was treated for hypothermia.  With the water temperatures off Zeebrugge around a chilly 16° C, it is fortunate that the Flinterstar did not sink completely and came to rest on a bank.  The LNG carrier sustained damage, but was able to make it to port in Zeebrugge with the assistance of a tug.

COLREGS Rule 14

Head-on Situation

a) When two power-driven vessels are meeting on reciprocal or nearly reciprocal courses so as to involve risk of collision each shall alter her course to starboard so that each shall pass on the port side of the other.

b) Such a situation shall be deemed to exist when a vessel sees the other ahead or nearly ahead and by night she could see the masthead lights of the other in a line or nearly in a line and/or both sidelights and by day she observes the corresponding aspect of the other vessel.

c) When a vessel is in any doubt as to whether such a situation exists she shall assume that it does and act accordingly.

The investigation report for this incident will be read with great interest when it is published.  In the meantime, we can only speculate that there was a lack of communication and poor application of the rules of the road.  We might expect that vessels in such a situation would both alter course to starboard, eventually passing safely port-to-port.  In the event that either vessel couldn’t comply – due to factors such as water depth – early and effective communication of the actions taken would be paramount.

Also of interest might be the use of any sound signals in the final moments prior to collision, as well as the rest-work cycles of the crew members involved.  As safe manning of vessels comes under increased scrutiny, might this incident be a sign of the lack thereof?  Or is it simply a matter of training?  Whether there was a lookout (or an effective lookout) might also be a question to be answered.  Any way we view this incident or questions it raises, we can use it as a teaching moment and discuss with our bridge teams what NOT to do and what we might do instead.

Let’s be safe out there!

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