The milestones that shaped maritime safety in 2017

Sonar equipment deployed in El Faro search. Credit: US Navy

A lot can happen in a year. Cast your mind back over the past 12 months and it is hard to believe the number of significant accidents, incidents, new pieces of legislation, and other safety-related developments whose impacts are likely be felt long into the future.

In 2017 we witnessed four separate collisions between US Navy ships and merchant vessels, the most recent of which triggered a worldwide ‘operational’ pause of the US Navy fleet and a comprehensive review of the Pacific fleet.

An industry focus on crew welfare led to the publication in January of Project Martha, a three-year study into the issue of seafarer fatigue. New Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) 2006 regulations on seafarer abandonment came into force, making it mandatory for shipowners to have insurance in place to assist seafarers on board vessels if they are abandoned.

More than 100 seafarers have lost their lives over the past eight years on vessels that have capsized and sunk as a result of cargo liquefaction. The ongoing need to drive home the dangers was highlighted in October when the nickel ore-laden Supramax Emerald Star sank in the Philippine Sea. Ten of its crew remain missing.

Despite their importance, none of these events made it into our top five safety milestones of 2017, which are presented below in no particular order.

Cyber attacks

When AP Møller-Mærsk fell victim to a co-ordinated international cyber attack in June, causing the shutdown of IT systems across its business, shipping was made starkly aware of its vulnerability to hacking and the associated implications for safety.

If the world’s biggest shipping line can fall victim to such a criminal manoeuvre, despite major investment in IT development, what are the implications for smaller players that rely on connected digital systems for communication and navigation?

The so-called NotPetya ransomware that hit Maersk was hidden in a document used to file tax returns in Ukraine and was estimated in August to have cost the firm up to USD300 million, although the total cost could be much greater.

Fast-forward to October and BW Group, one of the largest shipping companies in the world, revealed that it too had been targeted by computer hackers, although it did not divulge if it resulted in financial or data loss, or if the culprits were identified.

The same month, critical cyber-security vulnerabilities affecting shipboard communication platform AmosConnect, by Stratos Global, were revealed by the cyber-security research firm IOActive. AmosConnect supports narrowband satellite communications and integrates vessel and shore-based office applications such as email, fax, telex, GSM text, and interoffice communication.

Knut Ørbeck-Nilssen, CEO of DNV GL’s maritime business, told Fairplay’s sister publication Safety at Sea (SAS), “As ships and mobile offshore units become increasingly connected and reliant on software-dependent systems, cyber security emerges as a key property needing attention to control operational and safety risks. Maintaining the integrity and resilience of critical cyber-physical systems requires a holistic approach to both safety and security and we foresee increased demand for third-party verification of cyber security during vessel construction or for vessels in operation over the next few years.”

New cargo risk

Awareness of the risks associated with liquefaction of cargoes, such as iron ore fines, coal, manganese ore fines, and nickel ore is on the increase, but incidents continue to occur, sometimes with catastrophic results.

In August, SAS broke news of an entirely new high-risk phenomenon linked to liquefaction that affects the solid bulk cargo bauxite, one of the world’s major sources of aluminium, with about 100 million tonnes transported annually by sea.

Researchers at the Global Bauxite Working Group (GBWG) observed a process whereby, when subject to sufficient dynamic loading, very wet fine-grained bauxites go through a process of slumping and dynamic separation, with the upward expulsion of water/slurry.

The findings, set out in the peer-reviewed report Research into the Behaviour of Bauxite during Shipping, state that the free surface effect of liquid sloshing about “could significantly affect the vessel's stability, leading to the risk of the ship capsizing”.

Ai-Cheng Foo-Nielsen, assistant manager at international shipowners association BIMCO, told SAS at the time, “The GBWG has come up with a very surprising conclusion. I don’t know if this is a more serious phenomenon than liquefaction. At present there is nothing mentioned about it in the International Maritime Solid Bulk Cargoes Code. We were not aware of it. It is something very new.”

In response to the report, the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO’s) Sub-Committee on Carriage of Cargoes and Containers issued new guidance on the carriage of bauxite, requesting that extreme care and appropriate action be taken when handling and carrying the material in bulk.

El Faro report

The loss of US-flagged ro-ro vessel El Faro and its 33 crew, which sank in the Bahamas in October 2015 while trying to navigate through Hurricane Joaquin, ranks as one of the worst maritime disasters in US history.

The final investigation report into the accident, published by the US Coast Guard in September this year, placed most of the blame on its captain, Michael Davidson, who underestimated the strength of the storm, the ship’s resilience, and failed to take adequate measures to evade it, despite concerns raised by shipmates.

The vessel’s owner, Tote Maritime, also came under fire for violations related to, among other things, crew rest periods and work hours, the lack of a dedicated safety officer, and for the use of outdated ‘open air’ lifeboats instead of enclosed survival craft.

A total of 36 recommendations in the report deal specifically with safety, including many that seek amendments to the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) convention, such as requiring closed-circuit TVs in unmanned spaces, an overhaul of the US Coast Guard’s Alternative Compliance Program, and the introduction of a voluntary system allowing US vessel owners to obtain certificates of compliance through class societies.

In response to the findings, a Washington DC-based maritime attorney told Fairplay, “I think you have to look back to OPA 90 [the safety regime put in place after the Exxon Valdez oil spill] to find a vessel incident that could have effects as far-reaching as this.... And who knows what Congress will do with this, in terms of new legislation. Even after the Deepwater Horizon [oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010] we didn’t see these sort of across-the-board recommended changes.”

The Polar Code

As global warming melts new shipping lanes in the ice, an increasing number of ships are expected to steer through Arctic waters in search of shorter journey times, increasing the risk of accidents and environmental pollution.

The Polar Code came into force in January and, for the first time, sets minimum international safety and pollution prevention requirements for ships operating in the Arctic and Antarctic. The code lays down mandatory standards, covering a range of design, construction, equipment, operational, training, and environmental protection matters.

The code also makes it mandatory for companies to ensure that masters, chief mates, and officers in charge of a navigational watch on ships in Arctic waters have completed appropriate training, taking into account the provisions of the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW). It bans shippers from dumping oil, oily waste or noxious materials into polar waters, but falls short of what some environmentalists wanted.

Chief among the omissions is the fact it does not address ships’ use of heavy fuel oil (HFO), which can be severely toxic to flora, fauna, and indigenous communities because of the length of time it takes for sludge to break down in cold water. However, that could change in future. In July, the IMO approved an environmental review of the use of HFO in the Arctic – it is already banned in Antarctica – to begin in April 2018.

Autonomous vessels

This was the year the concept of autonomous ships became a viable reality as industry and regulators made bold steps to usher in the technology.

Human error is the cause of the majority of accidents at sea, so the development of partially or fully automated vessels, operated or piloted using sensors, smart digital systems, and other technologies, has the potential to make the shipping industry much safer.

In May Yara and Kongsberg announced a partnership to build on what they claim will be the world’s first autonomous and zero-emissions ship. The container vessel Yara Birkeland is due to start operation in the latter half of 2018.

In October Rolls-Royce signed an agreement to start using Google’s cloud-based software to “teach” object detection to systems for oceangoing autonomous ships.

Recognising the future ramifications of autonomous shipping, IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee agreed to start to map out a new international legal framework for the safe operation of autonomous ships.

Critics have pointed to the potential human cost of the technology, warning that, if not kept in check, autonomy could spell the end of traditional seafarer roles: engineers may be moved off-ship and operators relocated to shore-based positions.

Adrian Mundin, policy manager at the UK Chamber of Shipping, told SAS, “Most accidents are down to human error, but what we never measure is how many accidents are avoided because of human intervention. Take humans off ships and you are entering an unknown realm. Stakeholders in shipping need to keep abreast of these developments to ensure the most beneficial application of the technology.”

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