In March 2008, my friend Rosel was working as a deck hand on the 189-foot fish processing ship Alaska Ranger (See PM #114) in the frigid waters of the Bering Sea. After leaving Dutch Harbor, the 35-year-old ship fought its way through the ice on its way north. At about 0300 seawater began flooding into the rudder room, adjacent to the main engine room. In pitch darkness and 25-knot winds, the watertight doors needed to stop the flooding failed.
Soon seawater began overflowing into the main engine room, sinking the stern and shorting out electrical circuits. Two hours later Alaska Ranger sank, and my friend ended up in the Bering Sea clinging to life in a survival suit. By divine providence or sheer luck, he was one of the 42 crewmembers to be rescued alive. Despite heroic efforts by the U.S. Coast Guard, five crewmembers, including the captain and chief engineer, died.
Watertight doors help maintain a vessel's survivability in an emergency by preventing water from flooding into a space. 46 CFR (Code of Federal Regulations) 28, 170, 174, and 185 detail a number of the regulatory requirements for watertight doors, which are typed either as Class I (manual/hinged), Class II (operated by a hand gear), or Class III (operated by a separate source and/or by a hand gear). Designed to withstand great amounts of water pressure, they can be located anywhere on a vessel including inside the house, between adjacent cargo holds, and in bulkheads separating the engine room from other adjoining spaces. Proper use and functioning of a watertight door in an emergency can mean the difference between sinking or not.
Testimony from survivors, the Coast Guard investigation, and the National Transportation Safety Board report issued on Sept. 30, 2009, all pointed to the failure of Alaska Ranger's watertight doors as a major cause of the disaster. Watertight door malfunction or misuse were factors in other recent sinkings, including the 410-foot British Columbia ferry Queen of the North in 2006 and the 93-foot fishing vessel Katmai in 2008. Better watertight door training and/or maintenance might have prevented the terrible loss of life that followed these accidents.
To their credit, the authorities have mandated onboard instruction. Consequently, 46 CFR 15.1105, 46 CFR 199.180, and 46 CFR 28.265-270 state that crewmembers on applicable vessels must receive training in the operation of the watertight doors soon after joining the vessel and during emergency drills. Where training is mandated, there's always the possibility that economic pressure could cause it to take a back seat to productivity. As one chief mate on a tanker told me years ago, "Remember, Kelly, when the crew is attending a drill or doing some kind of training on board, there is no maintenance, cooking, ship's business, or preparation for an upcoming port stay getting done." To keep the onboard instruction moving along quickly, I've seen the same trusted crewmembers who already know how to open and close the doors demonstrating the procedure — with others seldom being asked.
It was a blustery, gray January day, and I was the relief chief mate on a ship working in the Gulf of Mexico. We were in the middle of a fire drill that morning, discussing how in an emergency anyone on board could be called upon to close a watertight door and save the vessel from sinking. I asked the cook if he knew how to operate the Class II watertight door separating the steering gear room from the main engine room — a door not far from a galley storage area he went to regularly. Though he'd been a permanent crewmember on the ship for five years, he uneasily replied, "I've only watched one of the engineers or the boatswain work that watertight door. I've never done it myself."
I believe that it's time for the authorities to consider requiring that all STCW Basic Safety Training classes be augmented with a watertight door/damage control section, something similar to classes now offered by the North Pacific Fishing Vessel Owners' Association's Vessel Safety Program here in Seattle. This would ensure that every crewmember would not only have been given training in the types and use of watertight doors found on ships and boats, but would have personally opened and closed each type in the class — before joining a vessel. They could then gain the needed ship-specific knowledge while on board, as mandated already.
Training in the use of watertight doors is futile if the doors don't work as intended. 46 CFR 199.180 requires that the operation of the watertight doors be checked every month during emergency drills and mandates that, "Any faults or defects discovered during the drills be remedied as soon as possible." Unfortunately, hundreds of oceangoing ships and boats, like the ill-fated Alaska Ranger, are exempt from this regulation. I think that this exemption should be eliminated and that the requirements for checking the operation of the watertight doors set out in 46 CFR 199.180 should apply to all oceangoing commercial vessels. For the protection of the men and women on board, if a vessel is fitted with watertight doors, then those doors should be maintained and useable in an emergency.
In these times when increasingly smaller crews and longer work hours are being allowed on merchant vessels, emergency training and a ship's repair/maintenance must not be compromised. All it takes is one rogue wave or strong storm to prove the importance of watertight door training and maintenance. In an emergency, the fate of the ship and crew may hinge on one watertight door being properly operated by one person.
Till next time I wish you all smooth sailin'.
Kelly Sweeney holds the licenses of master (oceans, any gross tons) and master of towing vessels (oceans), and regularly sails on a wide variety of commercial vessels. He lives on an island near Seattle. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.