On May 07, the Maersk ship Safemarine Meru collided with a German container ship, the Northern Jasper in the South China Sea. Miraculously there were no deaths or serious injuries on either ship.
With a fire aboard the Meru, the crew of twenty-two transferred to the German ship which apparently suffered no damage. Chinese fireboats arrived at the scene and extinguished the blaze, and later in the week the Meru was towed seventy-eight nautical miles to the Port of Ningbo.
Tragically, the same day, seemingly not far from where the freighters collided, a Maltese freighter collided with a Chinese fishing boat, the Lu Rong Yu. Two died and seventeen are missing. Several nations including Japan and the Philippines have complained about the wanton disregard for safety on the part of Chinese fishing boats.
The cause of the two accidents are under investigation, and without credible witnesses, blame may never be properly fixed.
Going to sea either as a professional mariner or a traveler is always a risky proposition. There is a saying, “What the sea wants, the sea will have.” But those who go down to the sea, don’t have to make it easy for her.
Ask almost anyone in the shipping industry and those who investigate accidents, and most will tell you the same thing. Accidents at sea are generally caused by three things. Mechanical failure, human error, or weather. Often it’s a combination of all three.
Sometimes the crew members in charge of navigation and piloting are not paying attention on the bridge. That’s why the more eyes there the better. What’s worse than an inattentive crew on a ship is an inattentive crew on a ship coming the other direction.
Long hours, boredom, and ennui also contribute to collisions. Navigators who have logged thousands of hours on the bridge have their routine down pat. But as we all know, we lose out edge when we don’t double check ourselves. Assuming everything is fine is the mother of all screw-ups.
Distractions also play a role in accidents. A conversation. A spilled cup of coffee. A personal problem. Though they seem insignificant, they can, indeed, be contributing factors to a disaster at sea just like an automobile accident on the highway.
How often was a captain in a hurry, wanting nothing more than to get the ship docked and complete the journey? That’s understandable. But not at the expense of safety. Coming in too quickly to port or not wanting to burn more fuel than necessary puts everyone at risk on board and in port.
Unfamiliarity with a region has also been a contributing factor to disasters at sea. A strange harbor, river, or bay. Currents peculiar to a certain area can wreak havoc on a ship’s steering. Hidden rocks, sandbars, or jetties covered by a moon tide often lie waiting for the unsuspecting mariner.
When the Tek Sing set out from Xiamen, China to Indonesia in 1822, the trip went smoothly. Then the captain decided to take a shortcut through the Gaspar Strait to save time. Unfamiliar with the area, he hit a shallow reef. The impact ripped the ship to pieces and over 1,400 died.
One wonders how two ships out on the sea could possibly run into each other. Captains will attest to the fact that when there is no visual point of reference like trees or buildings, it’s more difficult to gauge how fast an approaching ship is coming. Modern electronic gear helps, but that is only as good as the person reading it.
Sometimes a captain and his crew can do absolutely everything right and still be in deep trouble. Shit happens and often at the worse possible moment. A clamp fails, a valve does not operate properly, a pipe bursts, or part of the ship’s steering mechanism fails, and the resulting havoc is unforgiving.
Weather is an obvious culprit in tragedy at sea. Storms have claimed countless lives despite the exceptional equipment to track weather systems and foreboding storms. Still not all weather-related disasters are caused by monstrous storms. Sometimes it’s something quiet but deadly. Like fog. In a crowded waterway, it’s a captain’s nightmare.
Fog and poor judgment doomed the Empress of Ireland the morning after it left Quebec for England. In the wee hours of the morning, she was passing a coal ship, the Storstad. Each slowed in the fog, but suddenly the Storstad turned without warning and ripped a twenty-five foot hole in the crowded ocean liner. Over a thousand passengers died, many of them as they lay in their beds.
My father-in-law, Irving Millard, served as a lieutenant on a New York City fireboat back in the sixties. During his tenure, he responded to more than his share of accidents. He once told me that you can see a collision out on the water a long time before it actually happens. By the time the captain and crew in both wheelhouses respond, it’s almost too late. Reversing engines may slow the impact. Changing course may help. But don’t count on it.
No matter where your travels take you, whether you’re a mariner on your way to Buenos Aires, a vacationer cruising to the Caribbean, or just a fisherman hanging out at your favorite haunt, I wish you a safe and happy journey. May you have fair winds and following seas.
The Uncommon Mariner