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First Officer of Vessel Being Overtaken is Blamed for Collision

collision discipline
Small Dutch bulker sinking after it was hit from behind by an overtaking vessel (Hjemmevärnskommandoen)

Published Sep 11, 2023 4:02 PM by The Maritime Executive

The Maritime Disciplinary Court of the Netherlands released its ruling on a September 2022 collision off the coast in which a reefer overtaking a smaller, slower bulker hit the vessel. In a surprising move, the Dutch inspector however finds that the smaller vessel being overtaken was primarily responsible and referred the officer on watch for disciplinary action.

The court concurred with the inspector’s extensive report saying that the first officer of the smaller ship “seriously failed in his responsibilities.” They however added an important note calling special attention for vessels sailing at slow speeds in busy lanes and being approached from behind. They are emphasizing the critical use of radar and recommended a setting of “radar center” as opposed to “off center” to maintain good visibility behind a vessel.

The collision took place early on the morning of September 9, 2022, approximately 20 miles west of the Danish coastline in what they highlight is a busy shipping lane. They are saying that visibility was good but note the winds were from the east at Force 7, the sea state was rough, and there was a moderate swell. It was also dark and raining. 

The smaller vessel was the Netherlands-flagged multi-purpose dry cargo vessel Helge. She is 5,000 dwt and was sailing with a crew of eight operating at a speed of 8 knots in the busy lane. She was being overtaken by the Wild Cosmos, a 10,0000 dwt reefer traveling at a speed of 17 knots. The collision caused significant damage to the stern of the Helge, with water entering its ballast tanks and flooding into the engine room which caused the ship to blackout. The crew abandoned ship into a life raft and was 30 minutes later airlifted to shore by a helicopter. None of the crew on either vessel was seriously injured, and the Helge did not sink and was towed to port for repairs.

The first officer of the Helge had been on watch for about an hour and in his defense, he says the second officer and lookout from the prior watch did not alert him to any issues with the Wild Cosmos. The first officer was joined by a lookout but he sent the lookout below because the person had reported he was not well. The first officer did not replace the lookout after relieving the one person.

During the hearing he told the Disciplinary Court that he felt the court was being overly strict, highlighting that he was working on required paperwork and had only been in the position for two months. The inspector however finds a series of issues which the court says were well-founded. In addition to not replacing the lookout, only one radar was on and not all its functions were engaged. They believe the first officer lacked situational awareness and not he did not react in an attempt to prevent the collision. They, however, acknowledge the Wild Cosmos also had an obligation to maintain a safe distance between the ships.

They conclude the seriousness of the evident negligence and inadequate safe navigation warranted a suspension of the officer’s license. They however also find “extenuating circumstances.” The officer cooperated with the investigation and told the court he was dismissed following the accident. The shipping line contends he resigned. The officer said he has been unemployed for seven months. 

The court reduced the recommended suspension from the inspector’s report and gave the first officer a total of eight weeks suspending his navigation license, but four weeks will not be imposed unless he “behaved contrary to his duty of good seamanship” in the future. They, however, also imposed a two-year probationary period.