Saturday, October 21, 2006

Pressure on the Captain

Last week I had to let go a container vessel from the shipyard fitting berth, where she was lying for 3 days after a 15 days drydock repairs.

The weather conditions were on the limit for the vessel size with the wind gusting to 30 knots WSW and the southwesterly swell being felt inside the shipyard basin area.

The deadline for the vessel to sail was given by the coordinating pilot to the ship's agent for 1900 LT taking into account the necessary UKC as well as the time of sunset, since that due to the bad weather, manoeuvring was restricted to daylight only.

When I got to the quayside I found the ship’s agent worried that some last minute final repairs were still undergoing, but, although the master preferred to leave in the next tidal window (12 hours later) to properly finish the works, he was being rushed by the superintendent as company’s representative, in order to get to the loading port as soon as possible.

I boarded the vessel and confirmed that some repair equipment was still being used on deck as well as several steel pipes recently taken inside and with no lashings whatsoever.

When I arrived to the bridge I found the captain, still wearing a boilersuit and a safety helmet, busy with final tests to steering gear and navigation equipment.

As the time was running out, and the weather deteriorating, I advised the captain that probably it would be much better to leave in the morning, allowing the necessary time to complete the repairs as well as to properly lash the equipment on deck, since we had about 4 meter swell outside the port entrance.

The captain just replied that the company had instructed him to leave even though he felt it was safer to sail in the next morning.

As all crew, including the captain, were from a Far East country, I could not understand their internal communications while they were performing the last tests, but it became obvious for me that not everything was going the right way, although the master signed the pilotage passage plan and I signed the pilot card, with no defects being reported.

After letting go all lines except the forward spring that we would use to open the vessel from the berth, when I ordered bow thruster full to starboard the captain very serenely informed me that the bow thruster was not available. This is what you don’t want to hear when you have a vessel moored 15 meters astern and a shipyard bridge 20 meters ahead and the wind blowing 30 knots on your port quarter, and the vessel already 10 meters away from the berth, with no available room for manoeuvring the main engine accordingly.

Fortunately we had a tug boat standing by that was swift to make fast on the bow, helping us clearing the berth and swinging the vessel, as we were heading North, requiring a 180º turn to proceed.

As we were proceeding to the position that I had previously informed that I would disembark, I could notice the panic on the master’s face since all pipes and other equipment were starting to crash on the bulkheads with the vessel rolling more and more as we approached the bar entrance.

After disembarking I could not stop asking myself what kind of company allows and puts pressure on the captain to sail from a port where the vessel had been for more than 15 days, with repairs still being performed on deck, with navigation and propulsion equipment not properly tested, with lots of equipment not lashed and the weather deteriorating.

Although his procedures were far from professional, I have to think that the master is probably used to do whatever his company tells him to do, on account of the afraid of loosing his job (wouldn’t he loose his job much faster if something went wrong?).

I believe that in order to avoid damage to the vessel, the crew had to stay up all night lashing the steel pipes on deck, and the officers on the watch had to find the best heading to avoid extreme rolling.

These are the persons that are supposed to be conveniently rested to fullfill their responsibilities as officers in charge of a navigational watch/lookout.

These are the companies that demand that safety procedures are on top of priorities for the captain and the crew as long as it has no commercial consequences. Fill all your check lists to avoid ISM non conformities, but please don’t arrive too late to your loading port, no matter what!


Javier Saavedra said...

Daniel,do not put all the blame on the master regarding his failure of making the prudent decision of not putting to sea.

Being the port pilot tasked with taking her out, as soon as you were informed that the bow thruster was not available, you could have taken advantage of the stand-by tug and have the ship going back alongside rather than turning her round to pilot her to the bar.

Since you had signed a pilot card that soon became most apparent that it was ommitting failures of equipment, you had every right and duty to have her going back alongside and further, to send a report to the Harbour Master in order that a proper PSC inspection could be had

Malheiro do Vale said...

Dear Javier,

Thanks for your comment. I fully agree with your point of view, but there are some facts that were omitted from the post for the sake of keeping it short.

The purpose of this particular post is to report on how companies are still putting commercial pressure on ship’s masters regardless of safety procedures and regulations, and not to attribute blame.

The failure of bow thrusters can happen at any time (and you would be surprised of how often this occurs) and we are trained to act accordingly. Nevertheless I have to admit that I do not know if the master was previously aware that the thruster was malfunctioning or if, after being tested, it just didn’t work when called for.

The point here is that I don’t believe that the captain and the rest of the crew were sufficiently rested for navigational duties and that the crew should not carry out repairs on deck while underway in bad weather conditions. But this is an opinion, not a witnessed fact. I bet that if you checked the rest period records everything would be according to ISM regulations…

As for leaving the berth after the malfunction was reported, please be aware that, when you start taking her out, you reach what I would call a “point of no return”, meaning that it is much safer to continue the intended manoeuvre than to try to come alongside again. This is the case with certain weather conditions and availability of room ahead and astern of berthing place which, in this particular case, were both disadvantageous for going back to the berth.

As for PSC, I can report that in the last years a number of ships were detained at Viana do Castelo due to inspections carried out after pilots reporting deficiencies.

Keep commenting!

Um abraço,


ajaviersaavedra said...


Some of your points are conceded but let me report what happened to me during the inbound pilotage to Antwerp, back in 1987 while in my last period at sea as a cadet.

We arrived at Wandelaar pilot station on the 24th of December past noon.

We had Christma's Eve dinner at 1800.

At about 1930 we arrived by the Antwerp locks and were ordered to drop anchor due to shortage of pilots (many taking some days off on occasion of the Christmas season).

We Spanish mariners are polite and I believe out of experience that you Portuguese are not least than us.

So we invited the river pilot down to the Officers Mess to await for orders to heave up and proceed to the lock, where as you know, the river pilot disembarks and the port pilot boards.

Our stewards, eager to have some dinner of their own, left our dinning table full of glasses, coffe cups as well as empty and partly empty bottles.

I do not deny that we had had some wine and champagne during our dinner and even some tried Scotch or brandy.

That certainly was not the case of our Master (he had years ago been forced to give up any drinking to preserve his health) and neither of the Third Mate that would be standing watch on the bridge from 2000 to 2400.

I do not now the reason but the river pilot came to the conclusion that we and our crew were all drunk and informed the port pilot accordingly.

When ordered, we heaved up anchor and proceeded to the lock without any incident or mistake and the same was true when we came out of it and entered the port waters proper.

It was not our first time in Antwerp and soon we noticed that we were heading for a general cargo berth when we were a tanker and knew that our berth would be that of our previous calls.

We warned the pilot but he would not listen. Rather, he took us to the general cargo berth and saw us casting a headline before he counter ordered his own instructions and piloted us to our designated berth.

All in all, we made fast and placed our gangway ashore at 0800 on the 25th December.

The above meant that the bloody pilot had the full ship's crew spending the night awake.

Our Master filled a complaint via the ship's agent but so far I know, to no avail.

If Mr. Pilot wanted to be sure of whether we were sober or drunk, he could have called in the port police to come over to the lock and test our blood for alcohol.

With your case, since it was apparent that the vessel was not seaworthy (bow thruster sudden unavailability aside) you could have declined to even see her singling out her mooring lines.

As I see it, our duty as mariners on the beach is to help our colleagues at sea and your civil servant status and the shadow of the mighty EMPA and IMPA, gives you plenty of room to help taking out the company's pressure on the Master.

During my time as surveyor (12 years in total) I did on quite a significant number of occasions see to ships that I was attending did not leave port until they properly secured the cargo or fixed malfunctions of ship's equipment so as to achieve a seaworthy condition and believe me, I on more than a couple of occasions had to fight my way to have Masters and their companies coming to terms