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MAIB: commerce a factor in tragic capsize

The upturned hull of the Cemfjord, taken by a passenger on the NorthLink ferry that was passing by.

CEMENT carrier Cemfjord, which capsized in the Pentland Firth causing the death of all eight crew, may have been sailing in “extraordinarily violent” sea conditions due to “commercial pressure”, accident investigators have concluded.

The Cyprus-registered ship capsized at around lunchtime on 2 January 2015 and no distress message was transmitted. It was more than 24 hours before the alarm was raised when passengers on a passing NorthLink ferry spotted its upturned hull.

None of the crew were found and they are all assumed to have died. The vessel sank on the evening of 3 January.

Investigators from the Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) found that the Cemfjord capsized in “extraordinarily violent sea conditions” with gale force winds and strong tides.

The report points out that such conditions are common within the Pentland Firth and “could have been avoided by effective passage planning”.

It said the ship master’s decision to travel through the Pentland Firth was “probably influenced by actual or perceived commercial pressure and his personal determination to succeed”.

MAIB investigators felt that, while the master was likely to have underestimated the conditions, the decision to press on would “almost certainly have been influenced by his recent experience of a dangerous cargo shift when attempting to abort an approach to the firth in heavy seas”.

Its chief inspector Steve Clinch said: “The appalling conditions and rapid nature of the capsize denied the crew an opportunity to issue a distress message or to escape from their ship.

“Although not a causal factor of the accident, it was also established that Cemfjord was only at sea because of flag state-approved exemptions from safety regulations.

“This tragic accident is a stark reminder of the hazards faced by mariners at sea and the factors that can influence decision-making in such treacherous circumstances.”

The accident went unnoticed ashore because the vessel’s progress through the firth was not being monitored and Shetland Coastguard “did not require vessels to report when exiting the voluntary reporting scheme area”.

The ship was at sea with “significant safety deficiencies” relating to its rescue boat launching arrangements and bilge pumping system in the spaces beneath the cement cargo holds.

MAIB investigators also identified “ineffective” inspections of the vessel over a number of years in Poland which “did not deliver the intended levels of assurance”.

Since the accident, Cemfjord’s managers Brise Bereederungs GmbH have implemented several changes aimed at improving safety. Those changes include enhancing management of vessel stability and weather forecasting capabilities.

Recommendations include that the UK MCA should review arrangements for safe shipping in the Pentland Firth.

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