Tales of the unexpected

01 Jun 2013 The Navigator

No matter how experienced a navigator you are, you are almost certain to come up against many passage planning issues during your career at sea. Risk management is the essence of passage planning – but that can mean being ready to manage unexpected risks, as well as those that could have been foreseen. The Navigator asked officers at all stages of their careers to talk about some of the foreseeable – and unforeseeable – issues that they have faced, and how passage planning could help.

Reef encounter
As a fairly experienced Chief Mate onboard a handy size product tanker, I was standing the 04:00 - 08:00 watch as she steamed eastward along the south coast of a large island chain. The morning watch was uneventful and, in fact, quite delightful, as the team were facing a tropical sunrise. We were monitoring our position on a regular basis as we ran about three miles from land and about two miles parallel to a hazardous reef. At 07:00 the Master arrived on the bridge and we chatted casually over coffee, discussing details of the forthcoming arrival and port call. As we chatted and enjoyed the sunrise, the ship continued along the coast in autopilot. For a half hour, as the AB prepared the bridge for the next watch, I failed to plot regular positions as visibility was fine. The AB could see the coast, and there was no reason to suspect that the ship might drift off course.
At about 07:30 the Master took the watch. Looking out through the crystal clear sea, he saw that we were in perilously shallow water. He immediately came hard right bringing the vessel again into safe water. Put simply, the bridge officers had not been paying due attention to risks and failed to realise that a strong current was flowing that induced sudden and strong set and drift. The current had not been included in the passage plan. Lesson learnt: natural phenomena such as reefs should always be anticipated by navigators, not just while standing watch, but also before the journey even gets underway. In other words, during that all-important passage planning process.

Reindeer ahead!
A cargoship in Norwegian waters came across a herd of reindeer as they swam the strait from one island to another. The vessel did not slow down, despite four men waving frantically from a boat to alert the officers on board. While the ship did not hit any of the reindeer, considerable damage was caused as the animals leading the herd turned and swam back into the others, resulting in chaos. Rescuers found dead reindeer both sides of the strait.
While the absence of a contingency strategy for swimming reindeer from an average passage plan can be excused, it clearly demonstrates the importance of taking nothing for granted. The cargoship had sailed the same route for the last 18 years and was well known by locals. Had the narrow passage, presence of ice and yearly herding ritual featured more prominently in the passage plan, the incident – and the reindeer - could have been avoided. Local knowledge can have just as important a role to play as what is printed on the chart.

Doubling back
As Chief Mate on a tanker, I went up on the bridge after loading had been completed to inform the Captain that the ‘deck/pump room etc were all secured for sea’. The pilot had been dropped. Only then did I look at the chart, to find that the ship was headed out on exactly the same track by which she had gone in unladen - a channel depth of 10.7 metres. The vessel’s draught after loading was 12 metres. Thankfully, there was still sufficient time to change course and head out the right channel. It seemed apparent that the second mate had simply reversed the courses and the Master had failed to recheck. So much for passage planning! Even if a passage plan has been made, it’s always worth checking it.

Corrections and clarifications
A vessel in Chinese waters crossed through a fish farm/cultivation area, causing damage and resulting in compensation claims. The fish farm was not noted in the passage plan because it was not marked on the ship’s charts – which had not been updated and corrected before the journey. There were no electronic means to receive corrections en route and the ship’s NAVTEX had not been working for some time. A package of chart corrections was on its way to the load port when the incident occurred; but too late for the crew on the bridge.
Lessons learned from this error in the passage planning process include the benefit of asking local agents for local charts to be used as an accompanying aid to a ship’s existing date. Scanned charts can be requested if physical copies cannot be delivered in time.
Editor’s note: The London Club warns that there are an increasing number of unlicensed fish farms, which are not marked on charts. Even after passage planning is complete, a good lookout is vital.

Grounding leads to deep water
As Master of a loaded product tanker, I made a diversion after bunkering, during which I missed the instruction to follow the deep water route and failed to factor this into my passage planning. Local charts did not indicate that I should follow the deep water route, and the second officer did not consult sailing directions due to time being tight. These omissions in my passage planning led directly to a very large amount of administration and a costly fine! I am told many vessels have suffered a similar fate in the area – it is something of a routine.