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Knives For Mariners: A Clarification

On June 5th I posted about the trouble that survivors from the Deepwater Horizon disaster had during their evacuation of the doomed rig. Specifically, while being towed away from the rig and the crude oil burning on the water’s surface beneath it, they fetched up into the raft’s sea painter and were held fast. This was discovered when the rescue craft ceased to make sternway and the raft tilted over at a 45-degree angle, dumping some of the survivors into the sea. As fortune would have it the rescue craft that was towing them, deployed from the supply boat that had been working the rig when the blowout occurred, was manned by at least one seafarer that carried a multi-tool which included a blade of some sort. This was tossed to the raft and they were able to cut themselves free. I wish I could see video of the under-heavy-pressure throw and the catch: butterfingers = death! Whether they were subject to a knife ban by their company, Tidewater Marine, is unknown at this time. What matters is that they had a knife when a knife was needed, and it was used to save lives.

The primary purpose of that post, and the reason for it’s “provocative” title, was and still is to call attention to the very important issue of some boat operating and drilling companies (no way to know for sure how many) banning their employees/contractors from carrying personal work knives because of highly-questionable safety concerns. A visit to the gCaptain forums will reveal this as a topic of discussion by professional working mariners, many of whom are oilfield seamen in the Gulf of Mexico, and there is no reason to believe that this is being concocted out of thin air. Conversely, I’ve never heard of a no-knife policy existing anywhere on the East or West Coasts, the Inland Rivers, or the Great Lakes, although that doesn’t mean there aren’t any companies that practice this, just that I’ve never heard of it or had it pointed out to me by another mariner.

This is a very bad policy trend that needs to be stopped before it finally succeeds in getting someone killed. Why it may well be perfectly legal for any company to have such a policy if it wants to, it potentially leaves mariners exposed to grave danger in an emergency. It is simply immoral. Each and every mariner, and marine workers in general, should have the right to carry a work/safety knife on their person at all times. A reasonable policy could restrict this right to knives which are not obviously meant primarily as offensive weapons: no stilettos,  switchblades, ridiculously-proportioned Bowie or Rambo-style survival knives, ninja throwing stars, etc. Mariners should resist and subvert no-knife policies in any way they can, and should think twice before working for a company that has one. Maybe then they’ll get the message. Regardless of what other relevant information emerges from the ensuing investigation, Transocean’s no-knife policy must be dragged out into the light and exposed for the gross stupidity that it is, then it needs to be done away with. Having said that, there is still much more to this story that needs to be looked at.

Another extremely important question, distinctly separate from no-knife policies, is why were the survivors unable to cut themselves free with one of the two required emergency knives in the life raft? SOLAS regulations call for a folding knife in the raft’s emergency supplies and also a buoyant knife with a curved blade located in a pocket by the raft’s entrance, whose sole purpose is to be used in just such a situation as the survivors found themselves in.

  1. Were one or both of the knives missing?

  2. Were they there but could not be located quickly enough to be of use?

  3. Were they located quickly but dropped over the side (oily hands, maybe?) and lost to the currents (missing, damaged or ineffective tether line or lanyard) before they could be used?

  4. Were they both there and located quickly, but ultimately ineffective (too dull or corroded) in actual use?

It is possible that the knives were missing, but that’s not the most likely answer. They’re mandatory equipment and it would be a ballsy move for Transocean, or anyone else, to deliberately remove them from the rafts.  It also doesn’t make much sense since their no-knife policy for workers/mariners would seem to have been aimed at individual humans carrying knives on their person. Furthermore, knives packed away in the rafts are also inaccessible unless the raft has been inflated and, therefore, can’t possibly be a threat to anyone. But in the end nothing has to make sense and you never know how far the stupidity may have taken them. As for finding the folding knife quickly when it is needed, there’s a lot of stuff in those emergency supply packs and it could have been buried. During an extreme situation such as this humans tend to get panicky, and they could easily have forgotten about it or been unable to locate . STCW basic safety training in the pool is a lot better than what we had before, which was nothing at all, but it doesn’t compare to what those people were going through: combine a raging inferno above and around them, oil and drilling mud everywhere, a bunch of frightened, disoriented and injured people, darkness, a raft tilted over at a steep angle, and you have a recipe for trouble. Finally, what kind of shape were the blades in? Were they adequately sharp to begin with? What about corrosion? Unless they’re coated in oil or grease and wrapped for protection even stainless steel can quickly corrode to the point of uselessness. It’s for these reasons that it is so important for individuals to carry their own knives at all times: redundancy can save you when nothing else will. Keep in mind that the short video “extra” only briefly skimmed over the episode and answered none of the above questions. Watch and listen to it again for yourselves.

Another very important question is why, with a rescue craft pulling on it, the sea painter’s break-free link didn’t let go and release the raft as it should have? The rig had not sunk yet so the hydrostatic release would not be expected to activate. Did the boat not pull very hard? It doesn’t sound like that was the case. In the video Deepwater Horizon Chief Electronics Technician Mike Williams describes how survivors were falling out of the raft as it tilted over at a 45-degree angle from the force of the boat pulling it against the resistance of the painter. Did the painter get sufficiently wrapped around something between the break-free link and the raft to where all or most of the force was exerted on the painter? This could be the answer but, again, who knows? It’s also quite possible that the break free link was either installed incorrectly or not at all, with the painter being shackled or tied directly to a fixed point on the rig. This is not an uncommon mistake made on commercial vessels and it could well be the culprit here too.

The answers to these questions are important because real-life learning opportunities like this don’t come along every day and we must take full advantage of them when they do. That is why all of the specifics of the evacuation deserve to be looked at very thoroughly by Coast Guard investigators. Maybe it will happen, maybe not. As I said before, resources are stretched pretty thin right now and with the well still gushing uncontrollably there are bigger fish to fry. Nevertheless, I hope they can manage to look into this before too much time passes and the memories of the survivors begin to fade.

#SeafarersKnives #DeepwaterHorizon #BreakfreeLink #LifeRaft #Transocean #SeaPainter

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