Master’s blog. COLREGS72, Rule 19. The Tragedy of The Sun Cross.

Despite all the impressive electronic assistance designed to enable deck officers to avoid collisions, collisions still occur. The answer is, and always has been since radar was first introduced, that the rules of navigation set out in the COLREGS must still be applied by deck officers.
Foreword to ‘Collisions: How to Avoid Them’ , the Hon Mr Justice Nigel Teare, Admiralty Judge at the Royal Courts of Justice in London.

Conduct of Vessels in Restricted Visibility

In recent collision case M.V. Sun Cross v M.V.Rickmers Genoa [2010] EWHC 1949 (Admlty) the Court was to consider the question of liability arising out of a collision which took place in the early hours of 8 March 2005 in the Yellow Sea between the vessels SUN CROSS and RICKMERS GENOA. Behind this formal words related to claim of the cargo owners we must not forget that this collision brought with it much more valuable damage which cannot be remedied at all: lives of all but two of the crew of Sun Cross. Enormous human loss and many similar contributing factors put this tragedy in one line with Mineral Dampier disaster. In aftermath of collision, 13 crewmembers of SUN CROSS went missing; water flooded one of the RICKMERS GENOA’s cargo holds contained 600 tons of a granulated, magnesium-based desulphurization reagent. About four hours later, the RICKMERS GENOA suffered an explosion and fire in that hold. The chief officer died in the explosion and the ship itself sustained serious damage.

I have nothing to add to the matter of vigorous and useless "attempts by RICKMERS GENOA to make contact with SUN CROSS" apart from that I already said in "Use of VHF in collision avoidance." From my experience based on discussions with the deck officers, this matter is rather of mental misjudgement of direct consequences of VHF communication, than of seamanship and COLREGS knowledge, i.e. officers usually consider agreed actions as something inevitably to take place, without any reservations or critical assessment. Such agreements, accordingly, are the first and often the only action they manage to undertake.

Another point is that "hard to kill" temptation to alter course slightly to port to give another vessel "a little more room" which almost every junior deck officer, as far as I can judge, possesses. This temptation belongs, in my view, to the kind of "acquired reflexes" and usually excused in way that "it would be necessary almost to go to circulation should I alter course to starboard." Probably some captains deny the officer on watch a right to change course to starboard as much as situation requires, reprimand for such action, therefore officer gradually becomes inclined to alter "slightly to port" rather than "significantly to starboard." It must not be necessarily a direct order or instruction from the master which will ripe to misleading conclusions and result in wrong actions. Very often repeated acrid criticism of proposed or executed manoeuvres will lead to "acquired" fears to act timely and effectively. Captains shall not forget that their knowledge and skills are based on years of experience which young deck officer cannot enjoy. Criticism shall not have a notion of prohibition but be rather formed in discussion which uncovers logic of the Rules and the right turn preference, and eventually will lead to proper understanding of COLREGS, develop an individual active pattern necessary for and applicable to manoeuvring in multitude of situations.

Summary

SUN CROSS was a general cargo vessel of 3,785 gross tonnes, 103.43 metres in length and 16.32 metres in beam. She had been built in 1984 and was equipped with diesel engines of 3,300 brake horsepower. Her maximum speed was in the region 11 to 12 knots. She was manned by a crew of 15 hands. Although equipped with radar, SUN CROSS was not equipped with ARPA. At the time of the collision, SUN CROSS was laden with 4,877 metric tonnes of pig iron. She was in the course of a voyage from Lanshan, China, to Yawata, Japan.

The RICKMERS GENOA is a container vessel of 23,119 tonnes gross, some 192.9 metres in length, 27.8 metres in beam. She was built in 2004 and was powered by diesel engines of 19,314 brake horsepower. Her maximum speed was about 20 knots. Her radars were ARPA equipped. At the material time, RICKMERS GENOA was operating a liner service and was laden with 134 containers and 41 units of general cargo weighing a total of 12,421 tonnes. RICKMERS GENOA was on passage from Shanghai to Qingdao.

The evidence from SUN CROSS was inevitably very limited given the fact that so few survived the collision. The only person to survive from those on her bridge was her bosun, a Mr Ba Yi, from whom a statement had been taken. Her second officer was the officer of the watch, but he did not survive. Likewise, the second officer of RICKMERS GENOA was on watch, together with an able seaman. He also provided a statement.

Ships’ actions

SUN CROSS was exhibiting the usual navigation and side lights. Her port radar was switched off. The starboard radar was on. The bosun was not permitted to use the radar but asserted that it had a poor picture quality. The second officer was seen to look at the radar from time to time, although obviously there is no record of any radar observations.

At some stage prior to any lights of RICKMERS GENOA being observed, the bosun recalls hearing a VHF call directed at SUN CROSS by name. The Second Officer was heard to respond but the terms of response have not been remembered.

The bosun saw a single white light bearing about 25 degrees to 30 degrees on SUN CROSS’s starboard bow at a range of about 2 miles. On his reporting the light to the Second Officer, the latter was seen to look at the radar and then ordered the bosun to switch to manual steering. The Second Officer then ordered "starboard 10" followed immediately by "hard-a-starboard". SUN CROSS came rapidly to starboard.

RICKMERS GENOA. The Second Officer of was on watch. In his statement he records that the radar echo of SUN CROSS was first observed at a range of about 9 miles bearing about one point on the port bow. The ARPA system identified SUN CROSS as a dangerous target shaping to pass within the CPA limit. The alarm was activated and the echo flashed red on the screen.

This then prompted the Second Officer to try and contact SUN CROSS by VHF on Channel 16. The message was: "Vessel on my port bow nine miles away bearing [not recalled] this is RICKMERS GENOA please come in". SUN CROSS continued to close. The Second Officer noted from the AIS display the name of the vessel and further unsuccessful attempts at VHF contact were made identifying SUN CROSS by name. These further calls probably started at a range of about six miles.

The white masthead lights and green side light of SUN CROSS then came into view at a range of about 1.5 miles. She was probably fine on the port bow. Since 2/o thought that she "was passing ahead", he tapped the steering joystick to port to "give her a little more room".

The course recorder trace reveals that the alteration to port began at a range of about 1.5 miles. The trace suggests that the initial porting must have been followed quickly by the Second Officer’s order to engage hand steering and go hard-a-port.

A VHF call was then heard on RICKMERS GENOA to the effect "keep your course and speed" whereafter the lookout on RICKMERS GENOA reported that SUN CROSS was "turning red". The heading of RICKMERS GENOA continued to swing to port. The collision occurred when she reached a heading of about 270 degrees.

SUN CROSS probably began altering to starboard shortly before RICKMERS GENOA began her alteration to port.

Use of VHF

The vigorous attempts by RICKMERS GENOA to make contact with SUN CROSS by VHF are worthy of mention. No explanation is given by the Second Officer of RICKMERS GENOA as to what he would have said if SUN CROSS had responded to his earlier calls. It is true that the AIS system gave him the advantage of knowing not only SUN CROSS’s course and speed but also her name. It is therefore perhaps surprising that her name was not used in the first message.

That said the persistent and unsuccessful attempts to make contact whilst in the meantime making no alteration of course and speed is strongly suggestive of a reliance on VHF contact as the method of first resort in collision avoidance. This is to be deplored as enhancing the risks rather than limiting them (See also: Use of VHF in Collision Avoidance).

Rule 19

It was nonetheless suggested by counsel for RICKMERS GENOA that, in assessing the action to be taken under Rule 19, it was appropriate to have regard to the obligations that would arise under Section II of the regulations on the basis of their relative approach on the assumption that they were to all intents and purposes in sight of each other or at least would in due course become in sight of one another at the limit of visibility. The significance of this point was of course said to be that the vessels were in fact crossing in circumstances where, under Section II, RICKMERS GENOA was the stand on vessel and SUN CROSS the give way vessel.

This argument is based on a complete misconception of the rules. Vessels are only in sight of one another when they can visually observe each other: Rule 3(k). The whole purpose of the rules is to ensure that risks of collision are determined and eliminated at an early stage and not left to be dealt with at the limit of visibility: Rule 8. By the time RICKMERS GENOA and SUN CROSS could see (or even be expected to see) each other visually, the risk of collision was imminent. At a range of 1.5 miles, with a joint speed of 30 knots and a CPA of probably two or three ship’s lengths at best, it is wholly unrealistic to assess responsibility by reference to Section II.

If it has developed that it has been encouraged by the emergence of AIS which furnishes fairly accurate data of the range, bearing, course, speed, CPA and TCPA of echoes together with the identity of the vessels concerned. This in turn has encouraged the use of VHF as a collision avoidance device leading to the formation of "private" arrangements.

As regards RICKMERS GENOA, nautical assessor advised as follows:

i) Having detected the risk of collision at or about 9 nm and having closed to about 6 miles, her first and preferred option was to have altered course substantially to starboard.
ii) Failing an alteration of course, at that stage, speed should have been reduced to manoeuvring full ahead (say about 12 knots) and the helm thereafter put to starboard no later than about 4 m.
iii) In the alternative there should have been a further reduction to stop engines.
iv) The alteration to port from about 1.5-2 nm was unseamanlike.

Given the mutual obligations under Rule 19, it is commonplace for liability in a "fog" case to be apportioned equally. But here RICKMERS GENOA must clearly carry the preponderance of blame. She continued at 20 knots into a close quarters situation which she did nothing apart from using her VHF to avoid. Having seen SUN CROSS at close range fine to port she selected the wholly improper option of coming to port. Apportionment A proper and fair apportionment is SUN CROSS 30% and RICKMERS GENOA 70% to blame.

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Readers’ comments:

Posted by: Raul Balagtas, 20 February 2014

God day. You a great help to gain more update about maritime operation. thanks and God bless.
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