Empress of Ireland

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 →