‘Sanchi’ and ‘CF Crystal’ collision: the human element strikes again?

In a world where the incidence of major maritime oil spills has diminished during the past decade into insignificance, the ‘Sanchi’ collision that occurred at 8 pm local time on Saturday 6 January and about 160 n. miles east of Shanghai, provides a huge wake-up call to shipowners and their insurers.

The ‘Sanchi’, a Suezmax tanker of 160,000 DWT, registered in Panama and built in 2008, was carrying about 136,000 tonnes of Iranian light crude oil bound for South Korea. Known for its volatility, the light crude cargo appears to have caught fire on impact and quickly spread to the entire 247 metre length of the ship. Only one oil soaked and lifeless seafarer has been recovered from the ‘Sanchi’s’ total crew of 30 Iranian and 2 Bangladeshi nationals. Bearing in mind the intensity of the fire and the toxicity of the smoke, it seems to be a certainty that all hands have died a terrible death.

The ‘CF Crystal’, a 75,000 DWT bulk carrier registered in Hong Kong and loaded with US grain for China, appears from video excerpts to be intact with hull damage in evidence only at her bow area. Her crew of 21 Chinese Nationals are all reported to be safe. They are the lucky ones.

The casualty scene is being attended by multiple firefighting, oil spill, clean-up and other rescue vessels including an USAF spotter plane looking for survivors. The Chinese authorities have taken charge and the information released to date is very limited. Nevertheless, the world’s media are making much of the potential for the ship to explode and sink with a resultant massive oil spill. Nothing sells better than bad news.

So how did this deadly collision occur between two large merchant vessels in open waters?

The answer lies in the frailties of humankind, not only the ship’s crew as the immediate cause of a major incident but also the entire regulatory and enforcement chain that controls the ownership, registration, management and operation of ships. However, the underlying failures of the IMO, flag state and Class/Recognised Organisation regulatory and enforcement chain are the stuff that PhD’s are made of, not short articles. Thus, for now, SeaProf can only focus on the immediate cause and the personnel who were on the bridge of each of these vessels at the time the incident occurred.

A report filed by Reuters provides a chartlet of the locale. It can be seen that the ‘CF Crystal’ was southbound. The ‘Sanchi’ was northbound. By reference to Rule 14 of the COLREGS, the two vessels appear to have been “meeting on reciprocal or nearly reciprocal courses so as to involve risk of collision”. In such circumstances, Rule 14 dictates that “each shall alter her course to starboard [right] so that each shall pass on the port [left] side of the other”. In simple terms, both vessels were obligated to take positive action by altering course to starboard (right) to avoid a collision. No rocket science required!

Rule 8 provides that “Any action taken…shall…be positive, made in ample time and with due regard to the observance of good seamanship”. Further, “Action taken… shall be such as to result in passing at a safe distance.” Common sense.

There are parts of the COLREGS that can be difficult to understand until they are carefully explained by an expert. Not so with Rule 14 and Rule 8. So how did the officers of the watch on the ‘Sanchi’ and the ‘CF Crystal’ – who must both have held at least a minimum of an STCW regulated watch keeping certificate of competence and had a SOLAS dictated array of anti-collision devices available to them – get it so wrong?

SeaProf has searched for AIS data evidence which is usually posted to YouTube by private receivers and collators shortly after ship collisions. AIS videos provide a helicopter view of the vessels involved including data on their pre-collision courses and speeds. However, on this occasion, there appears to be nothing posted to YouTube as yet. SeaProf’s suspicion is that this may be due to the exercise of Chinese Government control over China based AIS land receivers and their operators. Still odd though as AIS can now also be received by satellite

SeaProf has turned instead to the limited photo evidence currently available. The photo above shows the port side hull of the ‘Sanchi’ which is listed over to starboard. The photo quality is poor but it does not appear to show any signs of impact damage to the port side. It also shows the ‘Sanchi’ bow to be intact. So did the ‘CF Crystal’ penetrate the ‘Sanchi’s’ starboard side?

SeaProf found a photo of the ‘CF Crystal’ that proved hard to locate.  Perhaps because none of the media outlets thought it very dramatic? If so, they were wrong. What the photo showed was that the collision damage was confined to the ‘CF Crystal’s’ bow area, forward of the SOLAS mandated collision bulkhead situated at the forward end of No. 1 cargo hatch.

Now look closely at SeaProf’s enlargement of the ‘CF Crystal’s’ bow damage. Here you can see what appears have been the result of the bow of the ‘CF Crystal’ penetrating the hull of the ‘Sanchi’. What is below the water line and cannot be seen is the ‘CF Crystals’ bulbous bow that has long been a standard feature of merchant ship design. Bulbous bows improve ship speed and save fuel when a ship is in ballast. However, they also present an enormous battering ram attached to a huge mass of ship and cargo that is propelled by a powerful engine. A ship that is struck side on by a bulbous bow will often suffer a fatal blow.

Is this what happened? The key piece of the photo puzzle that is missing is a shot of the starboard side of the ‘Sanchi’. As this vessel seems to have listed quickly to starboard, then this may never be seen. SeaProf’s guess is that any such photo would show a gaping hole the size and shape of the ‘CF Crystal’s’ bulbous bow and the port side of her bow stem area.

Considering the photo evidence and the Reuters chartlet, it appears that the ‘CF Crystal’ struck the ‘Sanchi’ and penetrated her double hull through to a cargo tank, igniting the light crude oil inside. For this to have occurred, it must have been the case that despite the fact these vessels were on reciprocal courses, neither vessel made an early alteration of course to starboard as obligated by Rule 14.  It then seems that the ‘Sanchi’ make a last minute and wrongful alteration hard to port across the ‘CF Crystal’s’ on coming bow.

The bizarre circumstances under which these two vessels appear to have navigated so close together and ultimately collided provides an extreme example of the dangers of the human element. Was it negligence or incompetence? Fatigue or lack of situational awareness? Or a combination of all of these factors? These human element issues are yet to be investigated along with the determination of the proximate cause and the legal apportionment of blame between the two vessels.

One solution to the human element problem lies in more advanced bridge watch keeper training through use of bridge simulators, inclusive of navigation, pilotage, COLREGS based collision avoidance and emergency scenarios. Much of this solution has already been actioned for a number of years. However, the availability of simulator equipment and competent trainers in developing countries – often crew source suppliers – remains patchy due to high capital cost and on-going maintenance expense. As such there is as yet no level playing field in relation to bridge watch keeper competence and the ‘Sanchi’ collision demonstrates that much more must be done.

Singapore, as the world’s No 1 pick for doing maritime business, is blessed to have a number of high grade bridge simulators available for mariner training. The last ‘Key Elements of Shipping’ (KES) course in Oct 2017 included a ‘hands on’ visit for course participants to Kongsberg’s bridge simulator centre. It proved so popular that the visit will be repeated for the upcoming KES course 13 – 15 March 2018 in Singapore. We hope you may be able to join us for a fascinating look at the business of shipping, its future and the problem of the human element.

Full details of the next KES course are available on the SeaProf Course Calendar. Please access through the buttons linked on the calendar page which include the KES course brochure, speaker details, course fees and more information on the very generous MCF training grant. If you may require any further information, our KES Course Coordinator, Ashley@seaprof.com, will be very pleased to assist you. Or please telephone +65 6632 3595.

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