Full speed ahead, caution be damned!

File the following incident under true crime, not science fiction. The National Transportation Safety Board has just released its report into the 2014 allision of offshore supply vessel Tristan Janice with a natural gas platform in the Gulf of Mexico. I usually read all NTSB marine accident briefs for the lessons learned, or rather re-learned. It’s good stuff, and this one was too good (bad) to pass up. Here are some excerpts from the report:

  • “During [the brief watch turnover], the captain mentioned that the starboard engine throttle had a small air leak but that he did not think it was a serious problem.”

A very important piece of machinery is not functioning properly, but is deemed not a “serious” problem. Bad thinking.

  • “…The mate believed the starboard engine was not maintaining full speed. He directed the on-duty deckhand to use a line to tie off the starboard engine throttle in the machinery space so that it would remain in the full-ahead speed position.”

This one is the best (worst). The deckhand probably did not realize he had some authority to say, “I do not think this is a good idea.” As part of an SMS process, everyone involved in a vessel’s operation has the responsibility to acknowledge any unsafe practices onboard.

  • “The captain … entered the wheelhouse … and found no one there. He said visibility was poor at the time … due to heavy fog.”

Remember, the vessel is still underway. Anyone see another red flag? The mate drifting away without being properly relieved sounds more like dereliction of duty than complacency. In spite of the fog, no lookout was posted.

  • “[The captain] said he tried to avoid the allision [with the gas platform]by turning the vessel, while ‘throwing it into reverse,’ but his turn was initially unsuccessful because the vessel was in autopilot and he had trouble disengaging it.”

The starboard engine throttle was still locked out and engaged full ahead. He couldn’t make the turn immediately because the autopilot was still engaged. It read like this was a surprise, or at least confusion, on the part of the master on watch. As a practice, I didn’t run with autopilot in the fog.

Although the captain was able to return to manual steering and alter course, the vessel allided with the platform at full speed, with resulting damage to both.

  • “Shortly after the allision, with the starboard engine still engaged in the full-ahead position, the two deckhands entered the engine room and removed the line tied to the starboard engine throttle…Without reporting the allision to the authorities, the crew navigated the vessel [away from the scene].”

To this long list of worst practices, they added a hit-and-run.

  • “The platform sustained structural damage and the gas service line ruptured. The rupture caused a release of more than 22,000 cu. ft. of natural gas.”

They were just lucky the gas didn’t explode and fry them and everything else.

The NTSB concluded that the likely cause of the allusion was “the poor watchkeeping and operational practices of the captain and the mate to ensure that the vessel was safely navigated, and the vessel owner’s inadequate procedures, and oversight of the vessel’s safety management system.”

There are too many issues to further mention, but foolishness and complacency are not excuses. This type of incompetent behavior aren’t representative of the majority of professional mariners, but it reflects badly on the industry. Remember the Mel Oliver, too. These sorts of individuals shouldn’t be in this business. They endanger us all. Learn from these lessons. My thanks to the NTSB for another comprehensive marine accident brief. Sail Safe!

About the author

Capt. Peter Squicciarini

Capt. Peter Squicciarini is a licensed master mariner and marine safety specialist at the U.S. Coast Guard Atlantic Area Command in Portsmouth, Va. He has worked on towing, passenger, and fishing vessels, and was a safety and compliance manager for an East Coast tug and barge company. He also served in the Navy as a surface ship officer and commanded several warships. He can be reached at pdsquicciarini@msn.com.

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