Here’s another accident report that all hands should read and heed. Svitzer Marine’s tug Flying Phantom was assisting the M/V Red Jasmine, a 738-foot bulker, up the River Clyde to the port of Glasgow, Scotland after dark and in dense fog, when it got out of shape and was then tripped (or girted, as they say in the British Isles) and sunk. Only the mate managed to get out of the wheelhouse alive. The tug, built in 1981, was of a design not normally seen much over here: a variable-pitch single screw in a steerable Kort nozzle, with a retractable azimuthing bow thruster that was added on on during a major refit in 1997. Moran converted four of their old single screw boats to a somewhat similar design (but without the steerable Kort nozzle & VP set-up) back in the mid to late 1990’s, calling them MorTrac tugs, and they too have been recently upgraded. This type is also sometimes referred to as a combi-tug.
They do some things quite differently across the pond: the Flying Phantom was out in front of the ship and connected by a synthetic-line hawser so as to help steer the ship through the turns and bends. In the near-zero visibility they couldn’t even see the ship behind them. The tug’s captain got disoriented enough just after helping the ship through one such bend (and being told to ease off by the pilot) that he wound up over on the edge of the channel, mistakenly thinking that they had gone aground, and was then passed by the ship. The hawser parted only after capsizing the tug. Lot’s of things went wrong that evening, and I would seriously question the wisdom of ever being out in front of a ship at all in conditions like that unless it was an actual dead-ship tow. The Red Jasmine was using its engine for propulsion with the tugs applying steering forces as needed, at the direction of the ship’s pilot. Apparently this was, and still is, a standard practice in the U.K.
At the very least there should have been a hand with radio communication to the pilothouse ready to slip, release or cut the hawser in the event of a problem. There was an emergency release for the tow winch but its functionality under strain proved to be too slow, and so was inadequate in this case. But despite the various errors, difficulties and lack of proper procedures to follow they still might have made it through in one piece had it not been for the one big mistake that has cost many a tug seaman their life: the port engine room door, which was clearly labeled KEEP DOORS CLOSED WHILST TOWING, was wide open and pinned to the bulkhead. That was certainly no accident. So it goes…..
The U.K.’s Marine Accident Investigation Branch has issued a detailed report on this tragedy, and their conclusions appear to be well reasoned. But one thing I couldn’t help noticing was that it was never suggested, or even mentioned, to explore the possibilty of simply using one or two assist tugs made up with headlines on either side the ship’s bow, as is typically done here in the U.S., to prevent a reoccurence of this tragedy. While not without its dangers, you can’t easily be disoriented or tripped in such a configuration, fog or no fog. The report does say that there had been some previous debate about the safety and effectiveness of their tug-in-front towing practice after a similar accident in 2000, but that there was no resolution because of differences of opinion on this point. Many of the recommendations that came out of the previous accident were either not implemented or were done ineffectively. As you can imagine, a storm of controversy has erupted over this. The families of the lost seamen are not happy with the report’s findings, specifically the lack of real follow-up on the previous safety recommendations, and so this story is far from over.
I can say this much for sure: if a pilot ever asks me to get out in front of a ship like that he better have a very good reason why, and he better be able to convince me that he’s exceptionally trustworthy. I really can’t see myself agreeing to do it under the circumstances that existed in this case, and certainly not with the ship’s engine clutched in. There was essentially zero room for error, and that was an unreasonable expectation for operating in such challenging conditions. We are all human. In the end, the results have spoken clearly for themselves. Be very careful out there…..
For further reading on this please see More thoughts on the River Clyde trajedy.