AN INVESTIGATION REPORT PUBLISHED BY THE TRANSPORT SAFETY INVESTIGATION BUREAU (TSIB) OF SINGAPORE HAS HIGHLIGHTED SOME SADLY ALL TOO FAMILIAR LESSONS REGARDING THE APPROPRIATE ACTIONS TO BE TAKEN BOTH BEFORE AND AFTER A COLLISION
On 15 March 2018, the 9850 TEU container ship APL SOUTHAMPTON was on passage between the ports of Xiamen and Ningbo in China, when she collided with a 46m Chinese fishing vessel, ZHE LING YU 52035 (hereafter referred to as ZHE LING YU) during the hours of darkness and dense fog. The traffic in the area was also dense, with ZHE LING YU one of a large number of fishing vessels operating in the vicinity at the time.
Tragically, the collision resulted in the capsizing and sinking of ZHE LING YU, with one of her crew killed, a further crew member reported missing and eight of the crew injured. There were no injuries on APL SOUTHAMPTON, which sustained minor damage to her bulbous bow.
The investigation identified that APL SOUTHAMPTON had departed Xiamen pilot station at about 1100 on 15 March with an estimated time of arrival at the Ningbo pilot station at 0830 the following morning, a distance of 460nm. This required an average speed of about 21kts to be maintained as per the passage plan.
During the evening of 15 March, APL SOUTHAMPTON was proceeding on a general North East course at 21kts on autopilot off the coast of Zhejiang province in the East China Sea. The 3rd Officer (3O), who was a Malaysian national, was on the Bridge, assisted by a Filipino Able seaman (AB) as lookout. As the evening progressed, the ship encountered intermittent fog, reducing the visibility to less than 1nm at times. Varying concentrations of fishing vessels were also being encountered, which the 3O used the autopilot to pass at a distance of between 0.2nm to 0.4nm at times.
At around 2313, the Taizhou vessel traffic system (VTS) broadcasted a Securite message on VHF regarding the heavy fishing traffic in the area as the ship proceeded towards yet another group of such vessels. One of these was ZHE LING YU, which had been acquired on APL SOUTHAMPTON’s automatic radar plotting aid (ARPA) radars. The target data confirmed that ZHE LING YU was heading east at a speed of 1.4kts, with a bow crossing range of 1.3nm about 15 minutes later.
At about 2323, an unidentified automated collision warning was directed to APL SOUTHAMPTON by VHF. The AB subsequently asked whether he should call the master, who was a Romanian national, but the 3O declined to do so. Around this time APL SOUTHAMPTON was proceeding to the port side of her planned passage in way of the 0.5nm cross track safety.
By about 2325, the visibility had dropped to almost zero and the 3O reportedly activated the automatic fog signal. At the same time another automated collision warning was addressed to APL SOUTHAMPTON by VHF, repeated at 2328.
At 2329, the steering was changed to manual and the 3O initially altered course to starboard in an attempt to increase the closest point of approach (CPA) with a group of fishing vessels on the starboard beam. He then instructed the helm to be put to port, followed by starboard, then back to hard port to attempt to pass astern of a second group of fishing vessels, which included ZHE LING YU. Around the same time, the latter’s speed increased gradually to about 5.7kts without any significant change in course, reducing the CPA with APL SOUTHAMPTON.
At about 2333, the 3O reportedly saw one of the fishing vessels cross ahead at close range on the radar, coinciding with a sound of “clattering” on the VDR. The AB recalled briefly observing a green light subsequently passing on the ship’s starboard side.
The 3O and AB discussed whether they may have hit one of the fishing vessels, and at 2335, the 3O called the master, who arrived on the bridge two minutes later. The 3O briefed the master on the poor visibility, heavy traffic and close-quarter situation with the fishing vessel, whose AIS icon and radar target acquisition symbol was no longer visible. The master took over the con, and instructed the AB to steer clear of some nearby fishing vessels, but the ship otherwise continued on passage, with the steering reverted to autopilot at 2343. Although no distress alert was received, subsequent messages were received on APL SOUTHAMPTON’s radar indicating a possible collision. Despite conversations between the master and 3O regarding the likelihood of the collision, no apparent attempt was made to try to contact ZHE LING YU or report the situation to shoreside authorities.
The investigation was unable to ascertain any information regarding the watchkeeping arrangement on ZHE LING YU, nor her availability of lights or ability to make sound signals. The China Maritime Safety Administration (MSA) later reported that she had been fishing at the time of the collision.
The lessons to be learnt from this accident fall into two broad categories, relating to the actions before and after the collision:
- Failure to comply with the COLREGs – The accident reiterates the importance of effective bridge watchkeeping and compliance with the collision regulations. Neither ship properly assessed the risk of collision or took appropriate actions to avoid the collision:
- There was no evidence to confirm that ZHE LING YU complied with requirements of COLREGs, such as keeping a proper lookout or assessing risk of collision. The investigation noted anecdotal evidence that the crew of fishing vessels in this area may lack familiarity with the COLREGs; watchkeepers on board merchant ships therefore need to recognise the possible hazards of navigating in close proximity to such fishing vessels.
- APL SOUTHAMPTON did not comply with various aspects of the COLREGs, including not proceeding at a safe speed appropriate to the traffic density (Rule 6); not taking appropriate actions when navigating in restricted visibility, including incorrectly altering course to port for a vessel forward of its beam (Rule 19); and not using appropriate sound signals of one prolonged blast every 2 minutes or less. (Rule 35). The coaming lights had also not been switched on to increase visibility, contrary to the master’s night orders.
- Failure to reduce speed – Had the 3O reduced speed when encountering restricted visibility and large concentrations of fishing vessels, this would have provided greater time and opportunity to take appropriate and effective action to avoid a collision. It is possible that the 3O’s decision was influenced by the master’s night orders, which stated “Keeping required speed for arrival at pilot station”. This was contrary to the requirement in the company’s Navigation in Restricted visibility checklist that required confirmation of “Safe speed adopted”. This accident highlights the importance of commercial considerations not being allowed to override navigational safety.
- Ineffective passage plan – The area of the collision was widely known to be associated with high concentrations of fishing vessels and fog, with safety notices having been published in May 2016 and September 2017 by the China MSA and Ningbo MSA respectively. Had such information been taken into account while preparing APL SOUTHAMPTON’s passage plan, then consideration could have been given, for example, to reducing speed over certain legs of the voyage; increasing the bridge team manning; or altering the route to the east.
- Inadequate bridge manning – The investigation concluded that the bridge team composition on APL SOUTHAMPTON at the time of the collision was inadequate and that the 3O was likely overwhelmed by the amount of information to be processed. This would have been exacerbated by the high workload associated with navigating in an area of restricted visibility and concentrated fishing vessels. The investigation was unable to determine why the 3O did not call for assistance before the collision, despite the AB advising him to, and the SMS and master’s standing orders requiring this. Had he done so, then additional support would have been available to help increase situational awareness and deal with the developing situation.
- Failure to render assistance (‘Hit and Run’) – Various international conventions, including SOLAS and UNCLOS , place a duty on a master to render assistance to a ship in distress, including following a collision, although while not risking serious danger to their own ship. The other fishing vessels in the area may have been best placed to assist ZHE LING YU. However, the failure of the bridge team on APL SOUTHAMPTON to try to positively establish whether there had been a collision and that the crew of ZHE LING YU were safe, as well as to not report the situation, is disappointing and against the moral traditions of the sea.
 Safety of Life at Sea, Chapter V, Regulation 33
 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, Article 98