Lack of communication, translation lapse cited in US-flag collision

The U.S.-flagged containership St. Louis Express was outbound from Antwerp, Belgium on the Scheldt River when it collided with Hammersmith Bridge, a much larger cargo ship sailing inbound.

Nobody was hurt, but the incident caused damage that exceeded $500,000. National Transportation Safety Board investigators identified several communication lapses leading to the collision, which occurred at 0549 on Feb. 22, 2015.

For instance, the NTSB said Belgian pilots on both ships did not communicate with each other before the accident. The pilot on the American ship also did not translate relevant radio communications from Dutch to English for the bridge crew.

The agency determined the accident stemmed from “the failure of the pilots and bridge teams on both vessels to assess the risk of collision, inadequate bridge resource management on both vessels and a lack of communication between pilots.” The NTSB said insufficient passing room between the two ships “while meeting near a major bend in a narrow channel” was a contributing factor.

Crowley subsidiary Marine Transport Management Inc. manages the 798-foot, 3,732-TEU St. Louis Express. Crowley spokesman Mark Miller confirmed basic details of the incident but declined to comment on the NTSB findings. He described the incident as “a very minor collision.”

Primavera Montana S.A. is listed as the owner/operator of the 1,102-foot, 9,040-TEU Hammersmith Bridge, which sails under a Panamanian flag. Attempts to reach the company for comment were not successful.

Although the collision occurred outside U.S. waters, the NTSB often investigates incidents involving U.S.-flagged vessels if they are deemed “major” marine casualties, said Keith Holloway, an agency spokesman. Accidents with more than $500,000 in damage satisfy one criterion for an investigation.

St. Louis Express departed the port of Antwerp with a Belgian pilot on board about two hours before the collision. The master and mate were familiar with the Scheldt River, and the initial leg of the voyage was uneventful. By 0545 the ship was nearing a prominent bend near the town of Hansweert, Netherlands. Hammersmith Bridge was approaching in the opposite direction but was not yet visible.

The pilot on the American ship heard Hammersmith Bridge on the radio and “was generally aware of its location heading inbound,” the NTSB report said. The second mate noticed the approaching ship at about 0545 and believed the master and pilot also were aware of it.

“The master, however, indicated that he did not notice the Hammersmith Bridge until he saw it at the top of the bend, about three miles away,” the report said.

Hammersmith Bridge was traveling at about 12.5 knots as it sailed around the bend toward Antwerp, while St. Louis Express was approaching at about 17.5 knots. The Hammersmith pilot said he was watching the other ship on radar until he could see it from the bridge.

St. Louis Express was traveling near the middle of the channel, and about a minute before the accident local vessel traffic service called the ship to make sure there was sufficient room for the larger containership to swing around the curve. Everything would be fine, the pilot responded.

As Hammersmith Bridge rounded the bend, the two ships’ bows were about 300 feet apart. The pilot on St. Louis Express noticed Hammersmith’s stern coming toward them and ordered rudder hard to starboard, according to the NTSB. After clearing the bow, he then ordered the rudder hard to port. The pilot on Hammersmith Bridge also ordered rudder commands aimed at preventing a collision.

“The actions of both pilots, however, were insufficient to avoid impact,” the report said. “At 0548:57, the vessels collided, with the aft port corner of the St. Louis Express making contact with the port side of Hammersmith Bridge in vicinity of the larger ship’s No. 6 cargo hold.”

Investigators identified several communication lapses preceding the accident, in particular the pilot’s failure to translate relevant information into English for the St. Louis Express crew. The pilots’ decision not to make passing arrangements also was noted.

However, the pilots told investigators they did not explain passing arrangements to bridge teams in normal circumstances. The pilots said high traffic in the river, considered one of the busiest waterways in the world, precludes them from making verbal arrangements with every vessel.

“By not making a full appraisal of the risk of collision, both pilots and bridge teams displayed a lack of situational awareness and inadequate bridge resource management as the vessels approached each other,” the report said.

Investigators also described the St. Louis Express bridge team as “distinctly hands off” and as “deferring completely to the pilot.”

The report also noted the vessel’s crew apparently did not realize the two ships were on a collision course.

By Professional Mariner Staff