causes of shipwrecks

The Mystery of the Devil’s Triangle

It can be a mysterious place out there on the high seas. No place is more mysterious than the Devil’s Triangle where many a mariner has met his fate.

In a few months, I’ll be headed to Bermuda to accompany my son on his honeymoon. Don’t even ask. His kids are going too. While I anticipate having a good time, I am filled with a little consternation because of the reputation the area has. I know you’ve heard of the Bermuda Triangle, sometimes referred to as the Devil’s Triangle.

Depending on whom you talk to, the area covers an area approximately 500,000 to a million and a half square miles. Facing south from Bermuda, the right side of the triangle runs roughly to Miami, Florida. The left side of the triangle runs to San Juan, Puerto Rico.

A lot of strange things have happened in the area, everything from small pleasure boats to military ships and planes disappearing, and nobody really seems to know why

Oh, there’s lots of speculation. Scientists are at no loss to offer countless hypotheses about what happened to these boats, ships, and planes, but in the end, they are just that. Hypotheses.

I’m not an anti-science nut like Donald Trump and many of the morons in the Congress and Senate of the United States who vehemently deny climate change. Its effects are palpable, measurable, worldwide.

It’s just that in the case of the Bermuda Triangle, science just doesn’t have a definitive answer. Let’s take a look at a few of the mysterious disappearances. On March 4, 1918, the USS Cyclops vanished after departing Barbados and heading for Baltimore, MD. Neither the ship nor the 309-member crew were heard from again.

In fact, there wasn’t so much as a piece of wreckage. You can be sure the United States government launched an incredibly detailed search of the area and found nothing. Not even a hint of sabotage by a foreign government. I’m sure if Donald Trump had been president then, he would have found someone to blame and pay for the missing ship. Continue reading →

Abandon Ship

Those two words are perhaps the most terrifying any passenger on the high seas can hear. On Wednesday, August 17, a ferry with 511 passengers and crew caught fire while en route to San Juan, Puerto Rico from Santo Domingo.  Miraculously, no one was killed as the Puerto Rico Coast Guard and local officials rushed to the scene.

It’s a voyage the ferry makes several times a week. This time a fire in the engine room changed routine into a near disaster when a fuel hose burst and spewed dangerous fuel everywhere. The fire spread to other parts of the Caribbean Fantasy, and when the ship lost power, it drifted finally grounding off Punta Salinas. While the hull sustained no damage from the fire, pictures reveal a different story for other parts of the ship.

More than a hundred people suffered smoke inhalation, dehydration, and shock. Though passengers were evacuated into life rafts by slide, several passengers suffered broken bones in the process.

The story has a happy ending because everyone did what they were supposed to do. Owners and authorities made sure proper equipment was on board. This included enough life vests for both passengers and crew, proper functioning slides, and enough life boats to accommodate everyone on board.

The story also has a happy ending because the captain, instead of trying to play hero and guide the ship into port, properly ordered the dreaded “Abandon Ship” command. Most importantly, everyone survived because the passengers kept their composure and did not panic in the face of a terrifying ordeal.

I shudder to think what would have happened in other parts of the world where ferry disasters are far too common and the loss of life seemingly routine. You don’t have to go too far back in the news to discover how bad it could have been for travelers on the Caribbean Fantasy.

On April 16, 2014, the South Korean ferry Sewol went down claiming 304 souls, most of them school children. When its sister ship was seized and inspected, authorities discovered the lifeboats would not release, and when one finally did by hard kicking, it barely inflated in the water. Continue reading →

Accidents at Sea

Any landlubber can bring a ship to sea. But it takes a true mariner to bring her safely home.

Any landlubber can bring a ship to sea. But it takes a true mariner to bring her safely home.

On May 07, the Maersk ship Safemarine Meru collided with a German container ship, the Northern Jasper in the South China Sea. Miraculously there were no deaths or serious injuries on either ship.

With a fire aboard the Meru, the crew of twenty-two transferred to the German ship which apparently suffered no damage. Chinese fireboats arrived at the scene and extinguished the blaze, and later in the week the Meru was towed seventy-eight nautical miles to the Port of Ningbo.

Tragically, the same day, seemingly not far from where the freighters collided, a Maltese freighter collided with a Chinese fishing boat, the Lu Rong Yu. Two died and seventeen are missing. Several nations including Japan and the Philippines have complained about the wanton disregard for safety on the part of Chinese fishing boats.

The cause of the two accidents are under investigation, and without credible witnesses, blame may never be properly fixed.

Going to sea either as a professional mariner or a traveler is always a risky proposition. There is a saying, “What the sea wants, the sea will have.” But those who go down to the sea, don’t have to make it easy for her.

Ask almost anyone in the shipping industry and those who investigate accidents, and most will tell you the same thing. Accidents at sea are generally caused by three things. Mechanical failure, human error, or weather. Often it’s a combination of all three.

Sometimes the crew members in charge of navigation and piloting are not paying attention on the bridge. That’s why the more eyes there the better. What’s worse than an inattentive crew on a ship is an inattentive crew on a ship coming the other direction.

Long hours, boredom, and ennui also contribute to collisions. Navigators who have logged thousands of hours on the bridge have their routine down pat. But as we all know, we lose out edge when we don’t double check ourselves. Assuming everything is fine is the mother of all screw-ups.

Distractions also play a role in accidents. A conversation. A spilled cup of coffee. A personal problem. Though they seem insignificant, they can, indeed, be contributing factors to a disaster at sea just like an automobile accident on the highway.

How often was a captain in a hurry, wanting nothing more than to get the ship docked and complete the journey? That’s understandable. But not at the expense of safety. Coming in too quickly to port or not wanting to burn more fuel than necessary puts everyone at risk on board and in port.

Unfamiliarity with a region has also been a contributing factor to disasters at sea. A strange harbor, river, or bay. Currents peculiar to a certain area can wreak havoc on a ship’s steering. Hidden rocks, sandbars, or jetties covered by a moon tide often lie waiting for the unsuspecting mariner.

When the Tek Sing set out from Xiamen, China to Indonesia in 1822, the trip went smoothly. Then the captain decided to take a shortcut through the Gaspar Strait to save time. Unfamiliar with the area, he hit a shallow reef. The impact ripped the ship to pieces and over 1,400 died. Continue reading →