Maritime Casualty News, September 2016

Coast Guard releases transcripts from El Faro hearing

The U.S. Coast Guard has released transcripts from February’s Marine Board of Investigation hearings into the El Faro tragedy. The U.S.-flagged cargo ship sank Oct. 1 near Crooked Island, Bahamas, with 33 people on board. There were no survivors.

The Marine Board of Investigation held hearings in Jacksonville, Fla., in February and in May focused on different aspects of the casualty. The transcripts released earlier this month cover all 10 days of hearings from Feb. 16-26, with testimony separated by day. The Coast Guard has not released transcripts from the hearings held in May.

“The board remains in the fact-finding phase of its investigation and a third hearing session, anticipated for this winter, will examine additional elements of the investigation including information retrieved from the El Faro's voyage data recorder,” the Coast Guard said in a news release. “This final hearing session is anticipated to conclude the fact-finding phase of the investigation.”

The Coast Guard investigation is distinct from the ongoing National Transportation Safety Board probe into the accident. The NTSB announced in late August that it had retrieved data from El Faro’s voyage data recorder found earlier that month at a depth of 15,000 feet.

The NTSB has released some information from the VDR. For instance, it said El Faro Capt. Michael Davidson activated an abandon-ship alarm at about 0730 as Hurricane Joaquin bore down on the ship, which was crippled by a propulsion problem. Additional disclosures are likely in the coming weeks and months.

The Coast Guard’s Marine Board of Investigation will begin work on a final report into the accident once the third round of hearings wrap up. The report will be made public.

Visit to review the transcripts.

Safety alert urges regular checks of VDR equipment

The Coast Guard is urging vessel owners and operators to regularly check voyage data recorders to ensure they’re working properly.

In a safety alert issued Sept. 1, the agency recommended testing between required reviews mandated under SOLAS rules. Recent groundings in the Pacific Northwest in which the ships’ VDR systems were not functioning properly triggered the safety alert. In these cases, the VDR units also were not configured in a way that met SOLAS requirements, according to the Coast Guard.

VDR units typically capture bridge audio, VHF radio communications, radar images and AIS data as well as vessel speed, heading and GPS location. Some units also can record engine alarms and other information. Investigators turn to these records after an accident to get a better picture of what happened.

“VDR data can assist owners and operators to evaluate the performance of shipboard personnel and vessel equipment, while also helping to determine causal factors related to an incident,” the alert said. “This information can be essential for resolving damage claims arising from an accident.”

“Periodic reviews of VDR data can also help detect unsafe practices and equipment problems before a marine casualty occurs,” the alert continued.

Officials investigating the recent Pacific Northwest groundings found certain data missing, potentially due to improper programming of the VDR. In another instance, crew struggled to retrieve relevant info from the unit, possibly due to changes with a computer operating system. The Coast Guard did not provide specifics about those incidents.

“Other areas of concern established by casualty investigations over the years point to insufficient deck officer knowledge about the operation of the VDR and most importantly the method to capture the data immediately after an incident,” the alert said. “If an owner or operator is uncertain about the functionality of a vessel’s VDR, now might be the time to validate its performance.”

The Coast Guard urges operators to make sure deck officers are familiar with the VDR equipment and can perform the “save data” function immediately after an accident. The agency also recommends a trained engineer perform a “line by line” test of the VDR’s functionality and data inputs and make sure the information can be played back. It also suggests adopting a company policy for this type of regular testing, and encourages adding these recommendations into the vessel’s safety management system.

Ferry hits kayakers in New York City

A NY Waterway commuter ferry ran into a group of kayakers in Manhattan during rush hour, injuring five people. One victim’s arm was nearly severed in the incident, according to the New York Police Department media office.

The accident occurred on Aug. 30 at 0553 near Pier 79 as the ferry Jersey City was backing out of a slip. Police would not say how many people were on the ferry at the time of the accident. Citing police sources, local media reported glare or bright sun might have been a factor in the incident. A department representative declined to comment on the possible cause.

“The captain of a NY Waterway ferry was backing out of a slip and collided with several kayakers causing several injuries, none life-threatening,” an NYPD spokesman said in an email, adding that most victims suffered cuts and bruises.

NYPD marine units responded to the scene and helped the victims from the water. The agency did not release additional details, and the Coast Guard referred questions back to police.

NY Waterway is the largest private commuter ferry operator in the country with 30,000 passengers a day and a 35-vessel fleet. Pat Smith, a spokesman for NY Waterway, said the company is cooperating with the Coast Guard investigation.  

Casualty flashback: September 1924

The lake freighter SS Clifton was carrying crushed stone from Sturgeon Bay, Wis., to Detroit when it encountered a gale late on Sept. 21, 1924. The vessel never made it to morning, going down near Thunder Bay Island in Lake Huron. All 25 crewmembers were killed.

The 32-year-old Clifton was a self-propelled barge known as a whaleback. The vessel was initially built to carry iron ore, but the year before it sank it was converted to haul stone products on the Great Lakes. The 308-foot freighter was powered by a single 900-hp engine.

Much about Clifton’s final voyage remains a mystery, including details of its sinking. The vessel and its loss are described in the 1968 book Ghost Ships of the Great Lakes by Dwight Boyer, but additional information about the incident, the mariners who died and the potential causes appear to be lost to history.

By Professional Mariner Staff