One should not, it is said, necessarily worry about the worst thing that might happen, because it probably will not. At the same time, when it is a ship is being designed, there is an obligation to consider the reality that something dreadful might occur during that ship’s operational life, along with the probability. But even more important is the consideration of the consequences, should this un-called for event take place. Matters of life and death should not be treated like a lottery, or a percentage game.

One is never going to wholly eliminate risk from any voyage; all that can be done is to reduce it to a reasonable level. But the definition of that word “reasonable” will form the subject of endless debates, wherever regulators and those regulated meet, largely around the matter of the measures that must be put in place to mitigate the seriousness of the consequences of that awful event.

It is a well-understood process, although there are accidents which occur that lead one to suppose that the consequences have not been fully understood, perhaps because the focus of the attention was on some other aspect of design. One might consider a vessel designed for operating in shallow, estuarial waters. It might seem quite reasonable to design this vessel with a low freeboard to its weather deck, on the grounds that the waves this ship will normally meet with will be far lower than those encountered by a ship at sea. But, on the other hand, the designers should not entirely dismiss the possibility that some other external force might be sufficient to dip the deck edge below the surface.

This might be far from serious – witness the deeply laden freight vessels that work on many river systems. Just as long as the hatches or tank lids are secure, it scarcely matters if the decks are awash. So the mitigating factor is the water-tightness of all the openings.

But, on the other hand, the safety of the ship will be seriously compromised if the deck edge, for some reason, submerges, and water gets on board.

Free surface effects, flooding, loss of buoyancy and capsize are all likelihoods in such circumstances. It would be bad enough aboard any ship, but one laden with passengers is a prospect too horrible to contemplate, although such an eventuality clearly cannot be ruled out.

In recent years, it has been pleasing to note that casualties have been reducing in number, but any satisfaction should be tempered with the recollection of just a few really terrible events.  Whether it is water on a ferry’s main freight deck causing a rapid loss of stability, or a giant cruise ship suffering such severe raking damage that it could not survive, lessons tend to be learned from such disasters. But it is an unsatisfactory process that we have to endure such accidents, when, with a more scientific adjudication of the realities of risk, they might be anticipated and prevented.

It could be that the maritime industry is going through a period of rapid technological development, such that the assessment of risk and the prescription of adequate resilience are just not keeping up with the process. Vastly bigger ships, far larger payloads, an accent on speed and precision, tempered with more environmental protection and innovative designs of all kinds, push all the boundaries. But the question “what if the worst thing happens?” remains relevant.   

Author: the Watchkeeper                       Source: BIMCO.