Steering system to blame in bulk carrier’s river accident, NTSB says


Steering failures caused a bulk carrier to strike a tanker and then hit a pier in the Mississippi River in 2014, investigators found.

The bulk carrier Flag Gangos, operated by Golden Union Shipping Co. in Greece and owned by Southport Wave SA in Panama, ran into the docked tanker Pamisos and rammed a floating pier at Gretna, La. In a December 2015 report, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said steering equipment had been neglected. 

“The probable cause of the accident was the delay by the Flag Gangos’ operating company in completing a mandatory upgrade to the vessel’s steering system, and failure to routinely test the steering system’s hydraulic fluid for debris as required by the manufacturer,” NTSB investigators wrote in their report. “Contributing was the failure of the steering system manufacturer to schedule and complete the mandatory upgrade.”

On the night of Aug. 12, 2014, the outbound Gangos ran into the berthed Pamisos at Gretna. Gangos then struck a floating pier where Pamisos was hitched, and the pier bumped fuel barge WEB235, which was berthed behind the tanker. No one was injured, but some of the 1,200 gallons of oil that were being transferred spilled and entered the river. Damages were estimated at $16 million to the terminal, over $500,000 each to Gangos and Pamisos, and $418,000 to the barge.

Pamisos is operated by Pleiades Shipping Agents in Greece. Blessey Enterprises Inc. in New Orleans operates WEB235.

Four hours before the incident, Gangos departed Cargill’s dock in Reserve, La., with a load of grain and corn. A pilot from the New Orleans-Baton Rouge Steamship Pilots Association was on board. Before the carrier left its berth, the pilot asked that the steering system be tested by moving the rudder between hard port and hard starboard. He was satisfied with the rudder’s response.

At about 2212, as Gangos neared mile 98 with New Orleans on the left descending bank, the pilot ordered a two-degree heading change to starboard from a course of 058 degrees to 060 degrees. The helmsman applied 15 degrees of starboard rudder, and the rudder responded correctly. However, when the helmsman turned the wheel to port to ease rudder input, the rudder didn’t respond. As the ship continued to swing to starboard, the pilot asked the helmsman, “Where are you going, man?” the NTSB wrote.

The pilot then ordered 20 degrees to port to correct the heading. The helmsman turned the wheel but the rudder didn’t respond. The pilot told the bridge team, “We’ve got a steering problem. Stop the engine, switch your steering pumps and stand by the anchor.” He notified the Coast Guard’s Vessel Traffic Service about the ship’s steering loss.

The pilot ordered the main engine full astern and then emergency full astern. The chief engineer responded by performing several astern starts of the engine. This allowed the engine to act as a brake, and the propeller slowed the vessel’s forward movement. The pilot then ordered the crew to drop the portside anchor and to hold the brake on the anchor. The vessel’s speed at the time was 8.8 knots and the heading was 092 degrees, well to the right of its intended course of 060.

The pilot repeated his command to hold the brake on the anchor. He blasted the ship’s whistle more than 70 times to warn personnel on moored vessels and docks about Gangos’ course.

On the right descending riverbank was the International-Matex Tank Terminals (IMTT) Gretna facility, where the 750-foot-long Pamisos was berthed bow upriver, loading slurry oil. The towing vessel Captain Shawn D. Martinez was aft of Pamisos and shoreside of a floating pier. Its crew was transferring fuel oil to the pier from WEB235, which was configured to the towboat. 

“When the crew and dockworkers heard the whistle blasts, they activated the emergency shutdowns for their respective oil transfers and prepared for impact,” the NTSB investigators wrote. “These actions helped prevent a potentially large oil spill from happening.” 

Gangos continued turning until the ship was nearly sideways in the river and almost perpendicular to its intended course. Because of the astern engine starts and dropping of the portside anchor, the bulk carrier’s speed was down to 2 knots, according to the report. Despite this, the ship couldn’t stop in time. The bow of Gangos struck the starboard quarter of Pamisos. Gangos hit the floating pier, and the pier made contact with WEB235. The 1.5-knot downriver current, which was pushing on Gangos’ starboard side, began turning the bulk carrier in the water. The pilot ordered the starboard anchor dropped, and three nearby tugs assisted in holding the ship.

Gangos sustained more than $500,000 in damage to the starboard bow section at the main deck and the steering system, while damage to Pamisos totaled over $500,000 to its starboard quarter. IMTT had $16 million in damage to its floating pier, loading arms, piping systems and mooring piles. WEB235 sustained $418,000 in damages, while Captain Shawn D. Martinez was unscathed. 

NTSB investigators found that a hydraulic solenoid valve and coil had failed in the port side of the hydraulic control block of Gangos’ SV850-3 FCP400 rotary-vane steering gear system. The hydraulic valve was jammed with debris. The coil failed electrically and couldn’t actuate the hydraulic solenoid valve.

Almost a year earlier, Rolls-Royce, the steering system manufacturer, had emailed a letter to Golden Union Shipping warning about this coil, which was also installed in the starboard side of the steering system, the NTSB wrote. At that time, in October 2013, Gangos was being delivered by the Cosco Guangdong Shipyard in China, where it was built. The service letter said in red: “MANDATED ACTION REQUIRED: It has become apparent that solenoids installed on some of our steering gears may fail prematurely, which can impact the steering gear’s performance. In order to resolve the reliability issue, Rolls-Royce will modify the hydraulic isolation drive circuit for Rolls-Royce frequency controlled steering gears with 230V AC solenoid coils, type: Eaton-Vickers 230V.”

Rolls-Royce technicians required a day on board to make the upgrade. The company stated it would schedule the upgrade with Golden Union. The letter said that during the bulk carrier’s next scheduled class survey the vessel’s classification society would verify that the solenoid upgrade had been done. Seven months later, in May 2014, Rolls-Royce contacted Golden Union about upgrading three vessels with affected steering systems but didn’t mention Gangos

In June 2014, Golden Union provided Rolls-Royce with dates of when the ship might be in port in Central America. Rolls-Royce said it would send parts for the upgrade to a local agent, and requested three days to complete the solenoid upgrade and two other upgrades. But because of the bulk carrier’s schedule, the upgrades were postponed until after the vessel’s port call in New Orleans. The upgrades were to be completed in Japan, however the Gretna incident had already occurred before they could be done.

The ship’s steering system was upgraded shortly after the incident. 

Previously, after the newly built Gangos had left the Guangdong shipyard, onboard alarms sounded, indicating that steering system filters were clogged. From October 2013 to April 2014, the alarms rang as often as 48 times each month, the NTSB wrote. In response, the engineering crew would inspect and clean the filter inserts, although the filters reportedly looked clean. After the chief engineer sent a guarantee claim to the Guangdong shipyard, new larger filters and housings were sent out — but they didn’t reach Gangos for almost eight months. After the new filters were installed in June 2014, the alarms no longer sounded. 

Under the steering system’s instructions, its oil should be analyzed every six months. Despite requests from NTSB investigators, Golden Union didn’t produce any evidence that the system’s oil had been analyzed. After the incident, in March 2015, NTSB investigators took oil samples from the steering system and filters and sent them to a lab, where results came back as “critical”— in a possible range of “good,” “caution” and “critical”— for the port side. The oil, which should have been clear and light yellow, was dark yellow and turbid with visible debris. It contained ferrous particles, oxides, sand and silt. Results from the portside filter were also “critical,” with high levels of ferrous particles, sand, plastic particles and dust.

Oil from the starboard-side filter was diagnosed as “caution” and contained ferrous particles, sand, dust, silt and lube degradation products. It was unknown how debris had entered the steering system’s oil, the NTSB report said. The oil was replaced after the incident.

Golden Union Shipping didn’t respond to requests for comment.

By Professional Mariner Staff