Probe: Watchkeeping breakdowns aboard both ships caused collision


At about 0515 on March 10, 2012, crew aboard the private yacht Battered Bull saw two large ships on radar that appeared to be on a collision course.

Although the 557-foot Seagate and 492-foot Timor Stream were separated by more than 10 nm, their paths were quickly converging. It was clear to the yacht’s crew that one of the ships needed to change course.

By 0532 the two ships were only 2.8 nm apart and closing in a patch of open ocean about 24 nm north of the Dominican Republic. Seven minutes later, according to an accident report compiled by British authorities, a lookout aboard Seagate shouted at the chief officer to “do something” to avoid a collision.

By then it was too late. At 0540 Timor Stream plowed into Seagate bow-first, tearing a deep gash into Seagate’s hull and superstructure on the starboard side.

A report issued by the United Kingdom’s Marine Accident Investigation Branch said the accident was caused by poor watchkeeping and cascading failures by crew on both Seagate and Timor Stream.

“Poor watchkeeping standards, driven by complacency, led to the collision,” the report said. “The officer in charge of the navigational watch on both vessels failed to keep a proper lookout, did not assess the risk of, or take appropriate action to avoid collision.”

Investigators found officers aboard both vessels “failed to comply with some of the most fundamental elements of the (amended) International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea 1972,” and ignored written procedures issued by their own ship managers.

The British-flagged Seagate had left Beaumont, Texas, with a load of wheat on March 3 for a trans-Atlantic voyage to Lagos, Nigeria. The Liberian-flagged reefer Timor Stream left port at Manzanillo, Dominican Republic, on the day of the accident en route to Portsmouth, England, carrying a load of bananas and containerized cargo.

The collision caused flooding in Seagate’s engine room and killed electrical power, rendering the ship’s emergency alarm inoperable. Timor Stream’s steel hull narrowly missed several sleeping crewmembers.

Timor Stream suffered punctures to its bow but the bulkhead was not breached, according to the accident report. The ship’s anchors were destroyed, and a lifeboat from Seagate landed on its deck.

All 20 of Timor Stream’s crew and all 21 people aboard Seagate were unharmed in the collision, which Jeff Ridgway, captain of Battered Bull, has said was like nothing he’d ever seen before. However, the chief officer of Seagate fell overboard while trying to release a lifeboat. He was rescued by crew from the 171-foot Battered Bull, which was en route to West Palm Beach, Fla.

As a result of the accident, about 3,300 gallons of diesel fuel and about 1,500 gallons of lube oil leaked from Seagate into the ocean.

Investigators said both sides made mistakes leading up to the collision.

According to the report, the chief officer aboard Seagate was repeatedly warned about a vessel approaching from the starboard side but mistakenly believed his own ship was being overtaken. He never verified the approaching ship’s bearing himself and reportedly dismissed the lookout’s warnings.

Seagate’s chief officer substantially mistook Timor Stream’s bearing and never took a visual bearing of the vessel. He was unsuccessful in plotting the approaching ship’s radar target, the report said.

“Had the (Seagate’s) chief officer established Timor Stream’s actual heading using his radar’s ARPA, he should have identified that his estimate of Timor Stream’s heading differed by about 50 degrees from its actual heading,” the report said. “He should also have realized that Seagate was in a crossing situation rather than an overtaking one.”

Actions by Timor Stream’s crew also were criticized. Investigators said the ship’s master opted to keep watch alone, and failed to detect Seagate visually or on radar and only became aware of an impending collision moments before impact.

Although VDR data indicated that the master remained on the bridge in the hour leading up to the collision, investigators speculated that he was seated in a position from which he could not look out properly for as long as 40 minutes before the accident.

“His report that he saw nothing of Seagate until moments before the collision strongly suggests that he was not looking out of the bridge windows, or at the radar or AIS displays,” the report said.

The master’s decision to take the watch alone and his failure to set the watch alarm “demonstrated extremely poor judgment, systematically overcoming each of the safeguards that should have been in place for keeping an effective navigational watch,” according to investigators.

The report speculated that watchkeepers aboard both vessels had settled in for a long voyage and “might have drawn a false sense of security from the good weather conditions and lack of traffic.”

Indeed, winds were light and swells were moderate on the morning of the accident. The sky was cloudy with occasional periods of light rain, the report said. Visibility was good.

Despite ample warning in the 30 minutes leading up to the accident, “neither watchkeeper was aware that the two ships were on a collision course,” the report said.

The report praised Battered Bull’s crew for taking “early and substantial action” to avoid the developing close-quarters situation by making a hard turn to port. There is no indication that the yacht communicated on radio with Seagate or Timor Stream.

The British investigators said failing to keep proper watch, even on ships led by veteran mariners, is becoming more and more common. If nothing else, they said in the report, the accident should prove a wake-up call about the importance of “maintaining high standards of watchkeeping at all times.”

The Marine Accident Investigation Branch did not issue any recommendations as a result of the accident, largely because managers of both vessels took internal steps to prevent a similar mishap.

Zodiac Maritime Agencies Ltd., manager of Seagate, bolstered training for watchkeepers, including new tests for regulations and navigation. Changes were made to the crew’s performance evaluation systems.

Triton Schiffahrts GmbH, manager of Timor Stream, spread word about the accident to its fleet and reminded crew to be mindful of watchkeeping and bridge procedures. The company required the master to “re-familiarize” himself with watchkeeping standards and company expectations while on the bridge.

Neither company responded to e-mailed requests for comment.

After the accident, Timor Stream sailed to Trinidad and Tobago for repairs and to Portsmouth to offload its cargo, the report said. Permanent repairs were completed in Europe.

Most of Seagate’s crew was transported by a Dominican Republic naval vessel to that country, while senior staff returned to the stricken vessel a day after the accident. Although stable, the ship was towed to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and was ultimately scrapped.

By Professional Mariner Staff