The Nordlake, Sea Eagle and Vindhyagiri fiasco: An accident waiting to happen, but we will continue shipping in troubled waters

Why are shipping accidents happening with alarming frequency around Mumbai? Here’s a lowdown from the deck, at close quarters

""But I don't want to go among mad people," said Alice. "Oh, you can't help that," said the cat. "We're all mad here."" (Lewis Carroll)

This would have been funny in the context of ships colliding like so many bumpy cars at a fun fair, if it had not been for the fact that one of them was an Indian Navy warship with families onboard, and of all things on a day when the headman of the Royal British Navy was also in town visiting. But, as an ex-seafarer, this is about as close as it gets to the truth vis-à-vis the macabre state of affairs with matters maritime, in and around Mumbai lately.

The actual and real truth on what really happened off Sunk Rock, outside Mumbai Harbour, will probably never come out. The ships and those connected will not be the only casualties, since truth already has taken the leading role there, and obfuscation shall certainly follow suit. Certainly, there shall be enquiries, and in all likelihood licences and certificates of competency will be suspended as far as the merchant ships Nordlake and the Sea Eagle are concerned.

In addition, the Indian Navy is bound to take some sort of steps towards trying to find out why one of their warships, the Mazagaon Docks built Vindhyagiri is now taking sounding, when it should have by rights been floating peacefullywaiting to be decommissioned next year, incidentally.

But first, some interesting sidelights on the Vindhyagiri itself-a Leander Class frigate built under licence for the Indian Navy, based on a design that evolved from as early as 1931. The Pakistani Navy had a few too-though they decommissioned the last of theirs, the Zulfikar in 2007. The Brits themselves decommissioned theirs in the '90s, mainly due to the ship's dated design and high running costs. To say the least, these were Indian Navy ships which could be called obsolete, even before they were launched in the '80s. But then, that's never prevented those who decide these things from buying obsolete ships, or building them.

So what happened off Mumbai harbour, then, on Sunday evening? One ship sank, one stands arrested and one more may find itself in trouble soon. That's one part.{break}

Here it makes some sense to take a little diversion, and refer to the Capt PVK Mohan report on the aftermath of the MSC Chitra and Khalija III collision, August 2010 off Mumbai. Constituted by the ministry of shipping, it made some very relevant and pithy recommendations, including the core issue of communications and vessel traffic control in and around Mumbai. It also made some more recommendations about the lack of communication between the various authorities involved in ensuring the safety of navigation and allied services along the Indian Coast.

Sadly, recommendations of such reports are not binding on anybody, and sotruth be toldeverybody does pretty much what they feel like in the channel off Mumbai harbour. This is old tradition from well before the days when the Patricia simply "ran away" from Bombay port in 1974to start a new chapter in international shipping. That is the first truth, while the blame game has just about begun, with the Indian Navy declaring its innocence even before any sort of formal enquiry has begun. Everybody talks, very few listen, and nobody takes any cogent action. And the guilty who are smarter just run away, every time, to rule the waves another day.

The second truth is that there seems to be no control over lifeboat capacity and number of people onboard Indian Navy ships on family day events like this. Certainly, there may have been exemptions, and there are traditions for such days outbut in this day and age, one would have expected that some precautions of the Life Saving Appliances sort would have been takenlike making the wearing of life-jackets compulsory for all those families on deck. Or controlling alcohol on board, too.

As seafarers, we know ours is the second most dangerous profession in the world, but we have no right to expose our families to the sameregardless. If nothing else, an enquiry on this aspectof how there were almost 700 people on a ship rated for about 300needs to be held and corrective action taken. The writer needs to make it very clear that loss of life was a real danger in both incidents, in August 2010 and now in January 2011, and it is only good luck as well as better seamanship on the part of the rescuers that ensured lives were not lost.

The third truth is that ships behave very strangely in narrow channels, especially when in close proximity to other shipsand in this case there were at least three ships involved in navigating in a complicated manner at very close quarters to each other. Two were cargo ships, container ships in this instance, with not the best of responsivenessand difficult to handle inside restricted waters.

Also, since they can move relatively fast, and are on tight schedulesprone to and apt to over-speed when approaching and leaving ports, is Standard Operating Procedure (SOP).

There is no single rule that governs matters in such cases. The "Rules of the Road", as applicable to vessels, are suitably complicated enough to provide for multiple interpretations. What makes it even more complicated is that Naval ships by sovereign rights are often a law unto themselves when operating in national watersand it is a wise merchant seafarer, as well as one who will have a longer career, who gives any and every Naval ship a very wide berth. Always. Respect as well as safety. In my days at sea, we would slow down when passing naval ships, and dip our ensigns in salute.

And stay very far from them.

Now we start treading in dangerous watersand that is that basic skill-sets in navigation and ship-handling are not exactly at the top of the pyramid when assessing the capabilities and possible future career graph of Indian Navy Executive Branch officers. As a matter of simple fact, officers ex-Indian Navy have to, rightly or wrongly, go through the full procedure to acquire their Certificates of Competencies to sail onboard Merchant Shipswhich says it all.

There is a reason for this fourth truthdeck side nautical branch seafarers on Merchant Ships spend a large part of their time simply doing what has to be done-which is, navigating ships. On fighting naval ships, however, there are a whole host of other things to doand navigation is often left to people to handle on a turn-by-turn basis. It is like driving a bus every day, or driving it once a monthby the end of it, you know who is the better driver, who knows the routes better, the whole nine yards.{break}

Now we come to what could possibly be the real cause of such accidentsnot just a fifth of the drop that cheers, which could also be a cause especially when approaching or leaving a port, or maybe even on "family days", but the fifth and most important truthego.

Yes, ego plays a big part in marine accidents of the "who will give way to whom" sort. If you have seen truck drivers arguing on crowded narrow roads on who will give way, you get an idea. Except that ours, at sea, are worse.

And further except for the fact that here we are talking of thousands of tonnes worth of inertia, all of them without brakes or immediate steering responses, playing chicken and sometimes even ship-rage in congested waters. It gets worse in clear visibility-in fog, or at night, with reduced visibility, at least, there is caution all around.

The airwaves around ports, or wherever ships tend to congregate, are full of "you give way", "no, I will not give way, I am deep draught, restricted in my ability to manoeuvre". Or maybe plain simple arrogant and cussed. Like, "I am from an ancient European seafaring heritage, so you native, you give way." True. This happens, too.

The seventh cause, unsubstantiated though darkly hinted on, is that there was an attempt on the part of the one ship to "get close" so that people could have a  better look and, this invites disbelief-wave at the people on the other ship. Certainly, waving at people on ships passing by has been a traditionbut you did it while watching them using binoculars. You did not pelt on converging or head-on or close quarters courses. Never.

However, when essential, if ships have to pass close to each otheras they do in narrow channels in their thousands everydaythen you don't wave. You call them up on radio, or you take guidance from shore-traffic management services, and you decide well in advance what actions you are going to take. Or you simply take action to stay well clear till you are well and truly past them. And then, afterwards, maybe you wave. In relief.

Behind every truth, however, lies a deeper cause. And the root cause for this sort of episode is that our older seaports have almost no accountability left in their functioning anymore. This has a trickle-down effect, and amongst those aspects that get impacted are the pilotage services, nowhere worse than with the centuries old Bombay Pilots. On one side you have a distinct drop in the levels of professionalism. On the other side is also the fact that navigation in and around Mumbai is all the more difficult because of the large number of wrecks dotting the areaand the vast increase in the amount of all sorts of traffic.

On a deadlier note is the simple fact that there is hardly any real re-evaluation of skill-sets once a person becomes a harbour pilot-revalidation of certificates of competencies are a simple paper formality without any real review or re-appraisal. Once a pilot, always a pilotand in case of an accident, the old law is that the pilot was there ostensibly only in an advisory capacity.

In reality what happens is like thisa pilot boards an outbound or inbound ship, and has hardly any time to figure out the vessel's characteristicsor on how she will behave in varying conditions of depth, wind, current, sea, swell, speed, traffic, visibility and the rest of it-before moving to handle it in the most delicate and complicated part of its voyage. The crew onboard the ships has had a long day, and cannot wait to see the pilot off, before getting on with the rest of the ocean voyage or getting into portand the pilot is in a hurry to disembark and get along with his life too.

Look deeper behind most maritime casualty or incident reports lately, and invariably the word "fatigue" creeps in, with the only profession in the world where a 100-hour week is mandated as legitimate. And worseif the seniors are fatigued, which they certainly are while making or leaving port, then the rest are worse off. One true and simple side-effect of fatigue is that you cannot recognise the signs of fatigue in others.

And that's what the grapevine really tells usthat the officers and crew on both the merchant ships, the Nordlake and Sea Eagle, were extremely tired, and as a result made serious errors of judgement.{break}

Certainly, the concept of duly mandated "rest hours" does exist-and it is the responsibility also of the Port State Control to ensure and see that this is adhered tobut then, at a port like JNPT, where berths are always congested, that would mean losing business while the ship's crew rested prior departure.

Are we tired of these repeated accidents outside Mumbai Harbour? Well, somebody had better start seeing, very soon, how tired the ship's crew are when they sail in and out of Mumbai.

The typical work schedule for crew and officers on a container ship calling Mumbai Port would be something like this:

An ocean-going ship would start port approach procedures, which typically requires all hands to be on specific multiple duties, at least four hours prior raising land. Add another 2-3 hours in the final approach, and then maybe a few hours at anchor, waiting for a pilot.

If weather is bad, or there is no room to anchor, then slow-speed steaming at full alert-since there is other traffic as well. Then, head towards the pilot pick-up point, another 2-3 hours of slow steaming, which is like trying to do a ballet in treacle. Pick up the pilot, another 2-4 hours before you tie up alongside your berth.

The shore unloading gangs don't even wait for the gangway to touch land before they start working the shipwhich has to be turned around, typically, in less than 24 hours. During that time, the Master and crew have to handle a host of shore authorities, each more "demanding" than the others, and also look after stuff like running repairs, picking up stores, go through mandated security and life-saving/fire-fighting drills, and multiple other tasks.

In addition, bunkers have to be taken, surveyors and company staff have to be attended to, there is always some number of people signing off and signing on, handing over and taking charge-and all the while, cargo is being simultaneously unloaded and loaded-especially on container ships. Papers are being signed blindly, phone calls to family and friends, since the ship is now "in range", when else will you download your personal mail and answer it.

Safe to say, most people will not have had a wink for about 36-48 hours, when the ship is ready to sail outand that's going to take another 4-8 hours of close quarters navigation. Interim, one has not had time to go ashore even for an idli or a batata-vada-leave alone catch up on shopping or the rest of the world.

And once you are out of Mumbai harbour, within a few minutes actually, you are smack in the middle of oil-field territory. More work, more proceed with caution, and more fatigue. Clear Bombay High, and now you are in pirate territory-more doubling up of watches and extra work, as well as lookout duties.

It would be interesting to see if one could get hold of the time-sheets for the Nordlake and the Sea Eagle. The truth behind this accident, amongst other truths, probably also lies within those fudged numbers, as it lies in other records being rapidly fudged all over.

And meanwhile, since trying to explain why shipping accidents happen outside Mumbai so frequently seems to be not so easy, this report ends with another quote from Lewis Carroll:

"When you are describing A shape, or sound, or tint; Don't state the matter plainly, But put it in a hint; And learn to look at all things With a sort of mental squint."

(Veeresh Malik started and sold a couple of companies, is now back to his first love-writing-and is also involved actively in helping small and midsize family-run businesses re-invent themselves).

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