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Shipwreck Blamed on GPS Reliance

Wreck in the Straits of GibraltarA report recently released by the Gibraltar Maritime Authority has once again proven to the world that navigation by Global Positioning Satellite alone can ruin your day. In mid-August, 2007, the lighthouse at Europa Point, in the Straits of Gibraltar, witnessed what could have been a tragedy when the Danish tanker Torm Gertrude, carrying 37,000 tons of gasoline, collided with the Panamanian flagged cargo ship New Flame, a bulker hauling scrap steel. The New Flame sustained major hull damage, leaving it half sunk in the straits. Her crew of 23 had to be removed from the vessel, and fortunately no one was injured. The photo at left shows the lighthouse and the New Flame as she lay with her bow submerged and resting on a reef.

The collision occurred at 0600 on the Sunday morning of August 13, after the New Flame had taken on fuel in the Bay of Gibraltar and was sailing into the Strait of Gibraltar. The tanker Torm Gertrud was sailing into Algeciras to carry out a crew change. The Bay of Gibraltar is an extremely dense and dangerous area for shipping, Among the issues that were investigated were why the New Flame sailed from Gibraltar without first obtaining the necessary clearance from the Port Authority. The Captain of the New Flame, Konstantinos Dimitriou was arrested in the immediate aftermath of a collision on a charge of endangering shipping, although they were eventually dropped. The site is also near a protected wildlife habitat, and had been the scene of another collision a year earlier.

Crews Not Aware of Surroundings

After a year and a half of investigation, the Gibraltar Maritime Authority released their report last month. The collision, according to the findings, was avoidable and stemmed from a combination of factors including over-reliance on electronic navigation aids in a busy shipping area.

The probe by the GMA also pointed to the limited control of shipping movements in Gibraltar waters at the time. It found that the lack of formal procedures between the ports of Gibraltar and Algeciras further contributed.

Rule 5 in the maritime code states that every vessel shall at all time maintain a proper look-out by sight and hearing as well as all available means appropriate in the prevailing circumstances and conditions to make a full appraisal of the situation and the risk of collision. But even though a bridge lookout was being properly maintained, the visibility was impaired by cranes, and thus more reliance was placed on the Automatic Identification System (AIS).

New Flame submerged in the Bay of Gibraltar

The Automatic Identification System is a system used by ships and Vessel Traffic Services principally for identification and locating vessels. AIS provides a means for ships to electronically exchange ship data including: identification, position, course, and speed, with other nearby ships and VTS stations. This information can be displayed on a screen. AIS is intended to assist the vessel’s watchstanding officers and allow maritime authorities to track and monitor vessel movements. It works by integrating a standardized VHF transceiver system with an electronic navigation system, such as a LORAN-C  or GPS receiver, and other navigational sensors on board ship.

Bridge resource management is the efficient deployment of all available resources to safely carry out a task. A major element in bridge resource management is maintaining a high level of situational awareness. Situational awareness means having an accurate perception of the factors and conditions that affect a vessel and its crew over a given period of time. In simpler terms, it means knowing what is happening around you.

Safety Issues

The following were safety issues identified by the investigation and are from the report. They are not listed in any order of priority.

  1. A close quarters situation was allowed to develop, even though early action to prevent this could have been taken by the give-way vessel.
  2. The stand-on vessel did not maintain her course and speed, despite being aware that she was the stand-on vessel in a crossing situation.
  3. Appropriate action was not taken when it became apparent that the action of one of the vessels alone would not prevent the occurrence of a collision.
  4. Neither of the two vessels communicated their intended actions to the other.
  5. Neither of the two vessels adequately monitored the movement of the other vessel or the effect of their own maneuvers.
  6. Over reliance on electronic aids.
  7. Poor visual lookout.
  8. Poor bridge resource management.
  9. Inadequate passage planning.
  10. Inappropriate siting of an AIS display.

Where’s the Lighthouse In All This?

Actually, the presence or absence of the lighthouse made no difference in this case. But the point that is made from this collision is that sailors cannot rely on electronics alone. And if this had been a case where a ship was endangered because of a reef or shoal, and their electronics system was awry,they very well could have wrecked on it, if they hadn’t been watching off the bridge. And that’s where a lighthouse comes in: to warn of danger and to beckon to safety.

If you’re interested, the full report is available as a pdf file.  Report on the investigation of the collision between MV NEW FLAME & MT TORM GERTRUD Wreck in the Straits of Gibraltar.

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