Thursday, March 8, 2018

Here we go again - and an opinion piece

Bad weather - high winds, no shipping. For the second week in a row, horrible weather is wreaking havoc on shipping schedules in and out of Halifax.
As of the time of this writing there are at least four ships holding off Halifax waiting to get in and a pair of ships in the port waiting to leave. After a brief weather window Tuesday/Wednesday things began to get bad again last night and are predicted to remain that way, off and on for some days to come.
Other ships that may have been due in Halifax are perhaps en route, but staying well away from the latest weather centre.

Opinion Piece

Much will be written over the coming weeks after another tragic accident aboard a large ship. A few weeks ago it was a fire on a tanker, and yesterday it was a fire on on an ultra large container ship, with more loss of lives. Seafaring is a dangerous occupation - although much safer in recent years - but the stark truth is that no matter what precautions and training may be put in place, shipping accidents, whether they be collisions, sinkings or fires, sill happen and all to often they result in deaths.

A number of issues are likely to receive attention:

1. The call for autonomous ships. Technology is far advanced in removing human crews from ships, but most experts agree that it may be ten years or more before truly autonomous ships sail the seven seas, and then only in very specific situations. While the systems are well advanced, the risks and dangers may be multiplied if seafarers are not on board to deal with precise navigation control and emergencies.

2. Improved firefighting on large container ships. It has been pointed out for some time that there is no effective means of fighting deep seated fires on large container ships. The containers stowed way below deck in tight stacks are almost unreachable. The shear mass of adjacent cargo provides so much fuel for fire that once there is ignition it is almost impossible to reach the fire to put it out, and so it will spread. The advent of split superstructures on container ships has at least divided the ship into three sections, which may limit spread. However crews may be trapped in a section and unable to reach safety.

While big buildings are required to have fire walls and sprinkler systems, ships are not, and only engine rooms are protected with CO2 systems. Perhaps it is time to rethink the requirements for fire spread, smothering or extinguishing fires in the cargo spaces. Depriving fires of oxygen is the only sure way to extinguish them. Drowning them in water does not always work, and of course could lead to ships sinking.

3. Lifeboats. There have been many fatal accidents involving the current self- launching lifeboats. Most of these have happened in training exercises. Some new thinking must be done to develop safety capsules in which crews can abandon ships quickly and safely.

4. Sensors and warnings. Early warning systems are needed, and the technologies are out there, but they may not be in use.

5. Cargo declarations. There is a lot of dangerous cargo on ships. This week's loss or damage to 70 containers off the Carolinas revealed that one lost container carried 2700 kgs of sulphuric acid. Perhaps it is fortunate that the box went overside where the acid would be neutralized by sea water. Had it ruptured on board it might have been more serious. The bigger problem is of course undeclared or mislabeled cargo. There have been numerous incidents where the ship's crew was not aware of the dangerous cargo through falsification of bills of lading, and could not protect themselves or the ship. Even better controls are needed to track, handle and stow dangerous cargoes.

All this is not to diminish the excellent Search & Rescue and marine fire fighting and salvage forces that respond to these situations, but these accidents will happen anywhere and the resources are not always near at hand. The primary effort to save lives then must be made in the design, construction and management of the ships themselves. 


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