Despite apparent advances in technology and crew training, collisions are continuing to occur as a result of communication breakdowns.
Two incidents that have been the subjects of recently published accident investigation reports involved failings by crew that have long been identified and, optimistically perhaps, addressed by either voluntary changes in industry practice or new international rules on safety and crew training. 

The failings include a dangerous reliance on VHF radio in collision-avoidance manoeuvres; a similarly risky reliance on the Automatic Identification System (AIS); and poor communication between both ships and fellow officers with different languages and cultures.

In the earlier incident (in June 2011) between two German-managed containerships (the CSAV Petorca and the CCNI Rimac) fog and fishing vessels in a busy Chinese fairway were contributory factors, but the main cause of the collision were misunderstandings on both bridges about each other’s intentions.

The involvement of local Vessel Traffic Services (VTS), rather than helping the ships to pass each other safely after one had changed course to avoid the fishing vessels, only seemed to create greater uncertainty.

The collision caused 26 containers on the CCNI Rimac to fall into the sea and a specialist firefighting team had to board the same ship to deal with a potentially dangerous situation when sea-water that poured in through a punctured hull reacted with hazardous cargoes in four other containers. The CSAV Petorca suffered only slight damage to its bow. There were, however, no injuries on either ship and no pollution.

In the later incident (in March 2013) involving a UK-flag containership and a Panamanian-flag bulker in the South China Sea, fishing vessels were also involved but this time the fault lay mainly with the Filipino officer of the watch (OOW) on the containership CMA CGM Florida. He relied too heavily on a junior Chinese officer to inform him clearly of a passing agreement made in Mandarin over VHF with the Chinese OOW on the bulker, Chou Shan.

The collision caused extensive damage to the containership which was holed above and below the waterline, resulting in the loss of 610 tonnes of fuel oil, although this was rapidly contained and cleaned up. In addition, 263 containers were damaged or lost overboard. The bulker sustained serious damage to its bow.

The report into the 2011 incident by the German marine accident investigation agency BSU concludes, “Rather than hearing what was actually said when the manoeuvre was arranged, the ship’s command on each ship heard…what was expected to be the only correct statement and already planned subjectively.”

In other words, officers pre-supposed what each other would say and based their actions on that rather than what, as it turned out, had actually been said. It is a commonplace in life that people often only hear what they want to hear. Anything that does not conform to expectations is treated as if the other person did not mean to say what they did.

The report by the UK’s Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) into the 2013 incident notes the Filipino OOW and Chinese Second Officer on the CMA CGM Florida were “hampered in their attempts to communicate by having to converse in a second language [English]”. 

It also suggests the junior of the two Second Officers was likely to have been “respectful of the Filipino OOW’s age, experience and authority”, while the Chinese OOW on the Chou Shan was “probably influenced by the high power-distance hierarchy of his national culture in agreeing to a manoeuvre about which he had concerns”.

The term “power-distance” is now common in accident investigation reports and officer training courses. Both have adopted the idea of a power-distance index or PDI which grades countries according to the degree people subordinate themselves to those perceived to be of higher authority.

With the world PDI average 55, China scores highly at 80, while “western” countries have below-average scores, suggesting their nationals are more likely to challenge and question authority.

PDI was cited in the reports into the Cosco Busan incident in 2007, when a containership spilled fuel oil after colliding with a bridge tower in San Francisco Bay and into the APL Sydney incident in 2008 when another containership dragged its anchor, snagging and rupturing a gas pipeline in Port Phillip Bay, Australia. Both ships had Chinese crews and pilots from low-PDI countries on board.

There were, however, other factors in play in the two more recent collisions. The report into the 2011 incident identified language barriers and over-reliance on radio communication and unclear orders on when to call the Master.

The Chinese Second Officer on the CMA CGM Florida had also only recently joined the ship and at the time of the incident was familiarising himself with the bridge and navigation equipment. His involvement in the incident arose initially from his ability to speak Mandarin and communicate with both fishing vessels and the Chou Shan.

The Filipino OOW on the containership is also criticised in the MAIB report for his lack of situational awareness in relying too heavily on the AIS information on the radar display.

Both reports also include revealing pre- and post-incident comments, recorded on either VHF or voyage data recorders, made by officers trying but failing to avoid a collision. No doubt they will be used extensively in training courses.

Luckily perhaps for the companies involved, neither of these incidents resulted in serious pollution other than the spill of fuel oil from the CMA CGM Florida. But, as in other incidents, there will have been costly retraining of officers and rewriting standing orders and safety manuals on top of any costs incurred in repairs and chartering in replacements.

Pressure no doubt on operational management to control costs in highly competitive markets contributes to failings in ships’ safety that no amount of legislation on safety management and crew training appears able to prevent.

“Communication breakdown”, the song says, “I’m having a nervous breakdown, drive me insane”: words that many at the sharp end of shipping might agree describe their situation all too well.

Author: Andrew Guest, a freelance journalist.                    Source: BIMCO