Gyro data input problem eyed in bulker’s steering loss that led to B.C grounding

A switching circuitry problem may have caused a 615-foot bulk carrier to lose steering and ram into the shoreline along a British Columbia island. The accident severely damaged the ship’s bulbous bow.

The Bahamas-registered Petersfield was loaded with soda ash and lumber byproducts when it ran into trouble Sept. 25, 2009, in Douglas Channel.

The Transportation Safety Board (TSB) of Canada is investigating the incident. A Pacific Coast pilot was aboard Petersfield at the time. Kevin Obermeyer, president and CEO of the Pacific Pilotage Authority, confirmed that a circuitry problem was identified during the probe.

“As a result, while we do know that there was an apparent failure of the data input from the gyro, we will have to wait for the final report from the TSB investigators to get the complete picture,” he wrote in an e-mail statement.

A gyro input failure would mean that the steering compass, other gyro repeaters and the gyro feed to the radar would be compromised. Petersfield’s gyro data input failure knocked out several bridge systems, including steering.

Petersfield is owned by Gearbulk Shipowning Ltd., and Gearbulk Pool Ltd. is the commercial operator. The vessel was carrying 15,000 metric tons of general and breakbulk cargo, said Kelly Williams, general manager of local affiliate Gearbulk Shipping Canada Ltd.

Petersfield had departed the port of Kitimat at the head of Douglas Channel, southeast of Prince Rupert. The 27,818-gross-ton ship veered off course near the western end of Maitland Island and struck the beach with enough force to leave its bulbous bow severely deformed.

There was no pollution and the vessel returned to Kitimat, Gearbulk Pool said in a statement. Divers assessed the underwater hull damage. Transport Canada inspected the vessel, which was cleared to sail with a tug escort at slow speed to Vancouver for repairs.

Transport Canada marine inspectors ensured that the repairs were completed as required prior to the vessel’s departure Oct. 28 from Vancouver. Gearbulk Pool said Petersfield completed its voyage to South America. Transport Canada is continuing to investigate the grounding to determine if there were any violations of the Canada Shipping Act.

The Petersfield accident has raised concerns about the safety of a proposed route for oil tanker traffic through the area. A pipeline has been proposed by Enbridge Pipelines Inc. to transport crude oil from the Athabasca tar sands in northern Alberta to Kitimat. First Nations peoples object to the pipeline route and the Kitimat oil port. The Gitga’at residents of Hartley Bay say they already have experienced the effects of the sunken BC Ferries vessel Queen of the North, which sank in 2006 carrying 1,396 barrels of diesel fuel and lubricating oil.

Cameron Hill, an elected councilor and spokesman for the Gitga’at community in Hartley Bay, said that the community has no confidence that shipping oil would be safe or that Enbridge is willing to take responsibility for it.

“We had the Queen of the North contaminate the waters here for two years,” Hill said. “And they’re telling us that this is a bullet-proof plan? We don’t buy that. It is not a question of if it happens, but when? We are dead set against it.”

Michel Drouin

By Professional Mariner Staff