Large haul capsizes unstable vessel

Lookout! Issue 34, December 2015

Propping up a hatch cover on the deck of a fishing trawler resulted in the death of a crewman who fell 6.9 metres, through two hatches, to the floor of an empty fish well.

In one of the New Zealand’s worst cases of lives lost due to poor vessel stability, the Coroner’s Court heard that mismanagement by the ship’s Master and a poor safety culture were other contributing factors to the capsize and sinking of the foreign-owned vessel fishing within New Zealand’s 200 nautical-mile fishing zone.

Miraculously, 45 of the crew were saved in an operation coordinated by the Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand; but six lives were lost, including the ship’s Master. The lessons from this tragedy are a telling reminder as to why stability issues must be taken seriously by vessel owners and Masters.

Several crew noted the 82 metre trawler felt unbalanced even as it departed from a New Zealand port with a number of fuel tanks not full. This created a “free surface” effect, with the motion of the vessel causing fluid to move – and so shifting the centre of gravity of the vessel.

The Court heard that once at the fishing site vessel stability was further affected by up to 45cm of seawater covering the second deck, from hoses that fed into three fish pounds. The fish processing factory on this deck was operated by shifts of workers round the clock.

Initially good weather mitigated handling problems caused by instability, as did the fact that the processed catch more than off-set fuel used.

However, the situation deteriorated in the early hours of the morning when the factory was ready to accept more fish and a substantially loaded net was partially hauled on board. Because the large catch was unbalancing the vessel, the Bosun told the first officer to open the cod-end and release some fish back into the sea.

This was not done as the first officer felt he had to talk to the Master, who had resumed command. The Master ordered the crew to continue to haul the net, but because of the size of the catch it could not be fully pulled on to the slipway. About five metres of net, compacted with around 30 tonnes of fish, remained in the water.

The weight of the fish in the water caused the vessel to list to port. The Master then ordered the net to be dropped back into the sea. When this did not work, he ordered the net to be manually cut and fish discarded, but by now seawater was pouring into the vessel and the catch was too compacted to be discarded.

The Bosun tried to winch the net from the port to the starboard side of the vessel. Meanwhile the Master ordered the first officer to offload fish from the factory.

Because of the urgency, the first officer went to the factory rather than phone the order through. He found it awash with water and reported to the Master that the engine room was also filling up.

The Master directed the ship’s Navigator to increase to full speed and turn to port, but the vessel would not respond.

Attempts to pump the engine room failed due to the volume pouring in through the port-side stairwell. By this stage, the ship was listing up to 44 degrees to port and sinking.

When the captain finally gave the order, in Korean, to abandon ship – and made a distress call about 4.30am – the majority of the crew had already managed to put on lifejackets and life rafts were being launched.

Another foreign chartered fishing vessel operating in nearby waters was quickly on the scene and rescued most of the crew, while eight other international ships and a Royal New Zealand Air Force P3 Orion continued the search for survivors.

LOOKOUT! Points

  • A smaller net and haul may have prevented the catastrophe. The mouth opening of the final trawl net, in this case, would have been the size of six tennis courts; 140 metres wide and 50 metres high. Two days earlier a 24 metre cod end on a trawling net had burst and was replaced with a 30 metre cod-end – increasing the weight of fish in the end of the net.
  • The helmsman said there were three times more fish than usual in the nets, with the haul estimated as in excess of 120 tonnes. Around five or six tonnes would have been on the 15 metre ramp at the stern of the vessel, with the rest trailing in the sea “like a big silver sausage”, the Court heard.
  • The effect of hauling a large bag of fish on board causes the stern of the vessel to “squat” and the bulbous bow to rise out of the water – reducing stability.
  • An expert told the Court that the decision to trawl in the evening to catch more fish, when the factory storage space was congested, indicated poor judgment.
  • However, he considered that the weight of the fish in the net was not the full cause of the ship capsizing.
  • The watertight integrity of the ship and the Master’s mismanagement of the situation were also key factors.
  • The evidence was that the entire port side of the factory deck was flooding as the ship listed. The water-tight doors down to the engine room should have been closed, along with the factory deck portholes.
  • The port side waste chute could have been closed, as is designed to be done to prevent the ingress of seawater in heavy weather. Doors at the end of the conveyor belt should also have been closed.
  • The Master and officers should have been more open to safety matters being communicated to them, and the crew should have been properly trained in safety procedures. An authoritarian culture on the ship is likely to have prevented crew from escalating safety concerns, and systematic failures to ensure the crew was properly trained also contributed to the foundering.
  • The safety of the crew should always be of primary concern for the ship’s management, rather than the financial cost and “loss of face” from dumping fish in such an emergency.
  • New Zealand’s inability in the past to enforce provisions such as those contained in the Health and Safety Employment Act 1992 were highlighted in this and other cases. The limited jurisdiction that New Zealand had over Foreign Chartered Vessels (FCVs) has since been reviewed. Legislation now makes it compulsory for all FCVs to be reflagged by May next year (2016). See our article about the first Japanese vessel to be reflagged, on page 6 of this issue of Safe Seas.

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