Maritime Casualty News, February 2016

Coast Guard issues safety alert of GPS malfunctions

Navigation equipment on most modern vessels relies heavily on data from the U.S. Global Positioning System, or GPS. Most of the time, these systems work flawlessly, but last summer several ships lost their signal near a non-U.S. port, causing key navigational equipment to go dark.

Although the signal returned after about 6 nm, crew aboard these vessels used radar in heads-up display, magnetic compass and terrestrial navigation during the outage. The U.S. Coast Guard said the incident shows the value of backup systems and a crew that knows how to use them.

“These types of events highlight the potential detrimental impact to navigation caused by GPS interference or jamming and the importance in understanding how your vessel’s or facility’s equipment could be impacted by a loss of GPS signal,” the Coast Guard said in a safety alert issued last month.

GPS can fail on board a ship for many reasons, including poor installation, bad antenna positions or failing equipment, the Coast Guard said. Signals can be affected by human and natural sources, and through GNSS devices close to other radiating devices. Authorities have found instances where jamming devices were used to affect GPS signals. Such devices are illegal in the U.S.

The safety alert urges vessels that encounter signal disruption to report the problem to the U.S. Coast Guard Navigation Center (NAVCEN), which with other agencies will work to determine the source of the problem. Reports can be made online at or by calling 703-313-5900.

NTSB contractors to resume search for El Faro VDR

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is launching a new search for El Faro’s voyage data recorder. The effort, announced Feb. 11, is expected to begin in April and last about two weeks.

El Faro sank Oct. 1 near the Bahamas as Hurricane Joaquin approached, killing 28 U.S. sailors and five Polish technicians. Authorities located the ship about a month later in 15,000 feet of water, although they could not find the VDR.

“After reviewing the data and video from the initial search, investigators shared findings with NTSB senior leadership who determined that a return mission to El Faro was warranted,” the agency said in a news release.

The new search will cover roughly 13.5 square miles using an underwater robotic vehicle. It will collect new images of the 790-foot ship’s hull, superstructure and debris field.

“The voyage data recorder may hold vital information about the challenges encountered by the crew in trying to save the ship,” NTSB Chairman Christopher A. Hart said in a statement. “Getting that information could be very helpful to our investigation.”

Another mission would be required to recover the VDR if it is found during the upcoming search, the NTSB said.

Two injured crewmen rescued from bulk carrier off Alaska

The Coast Guard airlifted two injured sailors from a bulk carrier 220 miles southeast of Kodiak, Alaska.

The men, ages 28 and 32, were injured in falls aboard the 738-foot Cemtex Venture, which was sailing through rough seas. The Coast Guard sent an MH-60 helicopter and an HC-130 aircrew to meet the vessel, which diverted course toward Kodiak due to concerns about the helicopter’s range.

The rescue took place on Feb. 9 as the ship battled 18- to 20-foot seas and 20 mph winds. It wasn’t clear when the sailors were injured.

Both men were released to local medical personnel in Kodiak. One sailor was treated at a Kodiak hospital, while the other had more serious injuries and was flown to a larger facility in Anchorage.

Casualty flashback: February 1999

After a long voyage from Japan, the 639-foot Panama-flagged bulker New Carissa arrived along the Oregon coast during the evening of Feb. 3, 1999. That’s when the trouble started.

The vessel was there to pick up a load of wood chips, but bad weather delayed passage into Coos Bay until the next morning. The captain dropped anchor two miles offshore near the harbor entrance. Overnight, gale conditions pushed the vessel into the surf zone and the captain was unable to gain control of the ship. It grounded shortly after daybreak on Feb. 4.

Attempts to refloat the ship were unsuccessful, and tugboats were not immediately available to help free the stranded ship. Weather conditions worsened on Feb. 5, bringing 25-foot swells and 70-knot winds. Conditions remained challenging for the next four days, and on Feb. 9 New Carissa began leaking oil. At the time, the vessel had 359,000 gallons of fuel oil and 37,400 gallons of diesel aboard. A day later, seawater began rushing into the engine room.

“Up to this point, the response had focused on saving the vessel and keeping as much of the oil as possible contained within,” according to a 2000 report completed by the state of Oregon. “On Feb. 10 that was no longer an option. A 15- to 20-foot vertical fracture became visible in the shell plating on the starboard side on the vessel, at the forward end of the No. 6 cargo hold. Break-up was believed to be imminent.”

Authorities decided to burn off the remaining fuel, and around 2045 on Feb. 11 the ship broke in two. Attempts to tow the bow portion to sea with the remaining oil inside failed when the towline broke in 100-mph winds. The bow drifted back to shore, spilling oil along the coast, the report said.

About a week later, the bow was towed some 200 miles offshore and on March 11, 1999, it was sunk. The stern remained along the coast until it was dismantled in 2008.

Investigators determined human error was considered the largest factor in the accident.

“The decision to drop anchor was what most experts deemed to be the single largest error causing the subsequent grounding,” the report said. 

By Professional Mariner Staff