Published: 1 August 2015

The Association has experience of several incidents in narrow channels where over-reliance on the pilot to monitor the speed and position of the ship has resulted in incidents of capsizing and grounding.

In a busy Vietnamese river, a barge capsized in a surge wave caused by the excessive speed of a larger container ship which was transiting the river.  The stern line of another ship, alongside further up the river, was broken by the surge.

After the event, the pilot of the container ship reported that he had found it difficult to control the ship’s speed at a consistent 12 knots (the river speed limit) whilst still maintaining steerageway against the river current.  With only the options of full or half ahead on the ship’s telegraph (one of which being too fast, the other too slow) he had struggled to keep the ship at about 12 knots, sometimes reaching 11.9 knots, sometimes over 12 knots, instead of using 12 knots as a maximum.  The master had presumed that the pilot was aware of the speed limit and would ensure that the ship remained at a safe speed.

It may be that it was not just the effect of the surge wave that caused the barge to capsize (there are indications that the barge was overloaded) but this was hard to prove as all the cargo and the barge’s documents were lost in the water when the barge capsized.  However, it was very easy to determine the speed of the ship via the ship’s ECDIS and by the VTS data provided by the authorities.  The fact that the speed limit was exceeded (even if only by less than one knot) has had serious effects in terms of liability for the loss of the barge and her cargo.

The master must retain responsibility for the ship and for maintaining a safe speed, despite the fact that the pilot may take the con during a river transit.  The master, with the support of the bridge team (in this instance the third officer was also on the bridge for the river transit), should remain aware of the speed limit for the relevant leg of the voyage and be prepared to ask the pilot to slow down if necessary.

This incident serves as a warning for ships transiting rivers under pilotage in other parts of the world.  For example, the Association has been made aware of a number of groundings in the Parana River, Argentina, where four ships have grounded in recent months at a sharp bend on the section of the river known as ‘Paso Abajo Los Ratones’.  At this particular bend there is a prevalent current of approximately 2.5 knots.

Masters are recommended to discuss the passage plan with the pilot thoroughly before commencing pilotage so that the master is aware in advance of the points of the river that can be particularly hazardous.  Also, the pilot must be well-briefed on the handling characteristics of the ship.  Masters are advised to maintain awareness of their ships speed, the depth under keel (and the potential for squat) as well as the position of their ship in relation to the charted dredged area, during transit of the river.