Six lives were lost when the Swanland cargo ship foundered
The Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) has published a report following an investigation into the structural failure and foundering of the general cargo ship Swanland.
The ‘tragic and avoidable accident’, which cost the lives of six crew happened in the early hours of 27 November 2011.
The master and five crew from Swanland were lost when the ship sank about 17 minutes after suffering a catastrophic structural failure in darkness and heavy seas.
The officer of the watch, who was the second officer, sounded the general alarm to alert the crew, who were asleep in their cabins, and the master wasted no time in broadcasting a ‘Mayday’ message on Very High Frequency (VHF) radio channel 16.
However, he did not use Digital Selective Calling (DSC) and the ‘Mayday’ message was very brief and so over the next four minutes the master was prompted by the coastguard operator to provide more details about the vessel’s cargo, damage and liferafts.
The crew started to assemble on the bridge and donned immersion suits collected from two decks below. These were a mix of different types – some of the suits were required to be donned with lifejackets, others did not.
The cook was never seen, and some of the other crew went back to their cabins to collect valuables and did not return.
As the vessel’s freeboard reduced, the master realised that the vessel was sinking and ordered the crew to prepare to launch the liferafts. At about the same time, the second officer collected the two search and rescue transponders (SART).
However, he had difficulty activating them because of the design of the gloves integral to his immersion suit (pictured), and eventually had to use his teeth to operate them.
Four of the crew were preparing to launch a liferaft from the port bridge wing, when they were covered by a wave and Swanland started to sink beneath them. The second officer and able seaman (AB) soon surfaced and climbed into a liferaft, which fortunately had inflated nearby.
The liferaft’s internal light soon extinguished, and the survivors continued to be hampered by the lack of dexterity afforded by the immersion suit gloves.
About one hour after Swanland foundered, a rescue helicopter arrived on scene and spotted the survivors in the liferaft.
No other survivors were seen, so the helicopter crew winched the second officer and the AB on board; they were cold but uninjured.
The body of the chief officer was recovered several hours later. He was wearing an immersion suit but no lifejacket; he had drowned. The master and the remaining four crewmen have not been found.
The MAIB report has found that ‘the lack of maintenance and oversight of Swanland is likely to have been a major contributing factor to the vessel’s structural failure’.
Among other findings, the investigation identified several safety issues concerning the immersion suits and lifejackets available on board.
Abandoning ship in the middle of the night in rough seas is a situation no seafarer wants to experience
To improve the likelihood of all crew surviving should the need to abandon ship arise, vessel owners, managers and crews are strongly advised to:
- Ensure that all crew are fully briefed on mustering procedures and are able to properly don the immersion suits and lifejackets available through regular and realistic abandon ship drills.
- Transmit distress messages in the recommended and internationally recognised format. This can quickly and accurately be achieved via DSC, but in situations in which the use of voice procedures is preferred, a simple aide-mémoire, showing the format and information required, is a simple and cost-free option.
- Ensure that either all of the immersion suits provided on board a vessel should be of the same type; i.e. they all have in built buoyancy, or, they all need to be worn with a compatible lifejacket, but not a mix of the two designs.
- Have Life Saving Appliances (LSA) that are compatible and ensure the ‘system’ is fit for purpose. The compatibility of individual items of equipment cannot be taken for granted, even where the LSA provided meets the required performance standards.
Worldwide, between 2002 and 2011, nearly 250 cargo vessels foundered causing the deaths of more than 800 seafarers.
Every day, more than 650 general cargo vessels operate in, or pass through UK waters. Many of these, like the 34-year-old Swanland are older vessels which operate in a no-frills, gritty sector of the market carrying solid bulk cargoes where the margin between profit and loss is slim.
A MAIB spokesman said the pressures on owners and operators of such vessels to maximize efficiencies is immense. ‘However, there is no justifiable reason why such vessels should not operate under the same rules or receive the same level of oversight and scrutiny afforded to other vessels, such as bulk carriers.’
The International Maritime Organisation is currently assessing what measures might be taken to improve the safety record of general cargo vessels internationally.
Read the full report on the MAIB’s website www.maib.gov.uk
(Pictures: Swanland’s two survivors in a liferaft and the immersion suit glove)