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Pilot Makes Mistake, Master Conceals Grounding

Vectis Eagle

By MarEx 2015-07-13 19:05:46

The U.K. Marine Accident Investigation Branch has released its report into the grounding of general cargo vessel Vectis Eagle citing errors of judgement made by both pilot and master, the later trying to then hide the incident from management.

On November 30, 2014, Vectis Eagle grounded as a result of the loss of directional control while entering Gijon, Spain. The loss of control occurred as the vessel was rounding an inner breakwater. The investigation identified that Vectis Eagle was unnecessarily close to the breakwater and that the turn was started too early. The pilot had been navigating by eye and his advice was not challenged by the master. The cause of the loss of directional control could not be determined by the investigators, and the master did not save the VDR data and attempted to conceal the grounding.

Six days earlier, Vectis Eagle had struck and caused significant damage to a lock gate in the Kiel Canal. This accident influenced the master’s decision-making and actions in Gijon.

In the Gijon incident, the vessel refloated under its own power two minutes after the grounding. There were no injuries and there was no pollution. The forward section of the vessel’s hull was damaged below the waterline.

Uncertainty Over Grounding

Vectis Eagle grounded soon after directional control was lost as the vessel turned to starboard in order to approach the inner harbor at Gijon. As it remained stationary next to No4 breakwater between 0804 and 0806, apparently neither the master nor the pilot was certain that Vectis Eagle had grounded. The noise and vibration of the engine running astern, the noise of the anchor cable paying out and the movement of the vessel would have masked the occurrence to some degree. 

Nonetheless, it is evident from the rapid checking of the forward tanks, followed by the pilot’s external inspection of the hull once the vessel was alongside, that the master and the pilot were aware that Vectis Eagle might have been damaged, states the investigation report. Both the reported loss of directional control and the length of time the vessel was stationary, despite its engine set to full astern, warranted investigation. 

Hiding the Truth

The master neither informed the chief engineer, who was in the engine room at the time, of the apparent steering failure nor saved data from the VDR when the vessel was alongside. Moreover, he took steps to conceal the possibility that the vessel had grounded. This included influencing the behavior of the vessel’s crew. Following the discovery of water and damage in the pipe tunnel, the master did not inform the pilot or report the possibility of the vessel grounding to the ship’s manager or the embarked surveyors and inspectors. 

The master’s attempt to conceal the grounding showed a lack of integrity, states the investigation report, and misled the ship’s manager to believe that the damage had resulted from the contact with the lock gate in the Kiel Canal. It was only when Vectis Eagle entered dry dock that the ship manager Carisbrooke Shipping realized that this was not the case. By then, the opportunity to save the VDR data was lost.

Routine Pilotage

Pilotage in Gijon is relatively straightforward and navigation by eye in good visibility is routine. However, on this occasion, although the pilot was experienced and very familiar with the port, he navigated Vectis Eagle unnecessarily close to the breakwaters. The pilot also started to turn the vessel around the southern end of No4 breakwater too early. 

It is not clear why he made this error of judgment, although his use of the prominent building as a visual reference was prone to inaccuracy, and his view of the breakwater was possibly obscured by Vectis Eagle’s deck cranes. It is also possible that the pilot had not fully appreciated the maneuvering characteristics of the vessel.

Passing so close to No4 breakwater left little margin for error or mechanical breakdown. Although there would have been time to rectify the premature turn to starboard had port rudder been applied when ordered by the pilot, there was insufficient time for the master and chief officer to identify, diagnose and rectify the loss of directional control, despite them having participated in steering drills only one week earlier.

Bridge Teamwork

The nine minute transit from the pilot’s boarding to the vicinity of No1 breakwater was sufficient time for the master and pilot to exchange information. However, their discussion was mainly limited to engine settings and speeds, and it did not include the passage plan to the berth. Although the master had checked and approved the vessel’s plan, which allowed greater clearances off the breakwaters (notably No3 and No 4) than the route followed by the pilot, it is evident that he relied solely on the pilot to keep the vessel clear from navigational dangers.

The master’s reliance on the pilot was probably influenced to some extent by anxiety resulting from an accident in the Kiel Canal six days earlier and that this was to be his first visit to Gijon. Nonetheless, as the master retained the responsibility for the safety of his vessel, his failure to sufficiently challenge both the vessel’s proximity to the breakwaters and the pilot’s premature initiation of the turn to starboard were significant omissions, states the investigation report.

The effectiveness of the bridge team was also limited by the employment of the chief officer as the helmsman. This was at variance with the vessel’s SMS and prevented the chief officer from supporting the master adequately during the pilotage. Given the vessel’s manning levels, an OS could have been used as a helmsman instead of the chief officer. Amongst other things, this would have enabled the chief officer to closely supervise the actions of the helmsman and he would have been immediately able to manage the loss of directional control in accordance with the emergency checklist provided.

The full report is available here.