Bourbon Rhode in poor condition before final trip, survivors say

Survivors and former crewmembers of tug Bourbon Rhode (IMO 9356359) have told investigators that the vessel was not in shipworthy condition prior to the September 2019 voyage (IMN October 2nd 2019) during which it sank and was lost, flag state Luxembourg has said.

Due to the complexity of the investigation and the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, the AET published an interim report on April 15th 2021.

“The originally hired first officer left the shipyard due to the poor condition of the ship. His replacement also complained about the overall condition of the ship,” Luxembourg’s ministry of transport said. “All three survivors said they were surprised by the poor condition. One survivor stated that a senior member of the engine crew was concerned that the technical condition of the ship would not allow it to cross the Atlantic.”

In July 2019, Bourbon Rhode entered a six-week shipyard period at the port of Las Palmas, part of its preparations to transition from 12 years of service off Nigeria to a new contract off Guyana. It departed the shipyard on September 17th, bound for Guyanese waters. The vessel carried one supernumerary, a fitter who had joined the ship to carry out “steel works that had not been completed at the shipyard.”

On September 25th, while crossing the mid-Atlantic, the Bourbon Rhode was hit by Category 3 Hurricane Lorenzo, but did not alter course, being on track to pass through the hurricane’s northern quadrant, within 35 nm of the epicentre.

At 07:50 the following morning, Bourbon Rhode sent a distress signal. The crew activated EPIRB 15 minutes later. At 08:45 the vessel’s master informed the home office that the vessel had flooding in the engine room and was likely to sink. At 09:45 the master said that “we have no more engine … All crew muster, ready and on standby … Life rafts not possible to launch, very rough seas, swell 30ft or more”.

The vessel’s last AIS position report was received at 12:43.

The marine rescue coordination centre in Martinique called upon nearby merchant ships to assist the crew.

Bulkers SSI Excellent and Piet diverted to the scene. During the afternoon of September 28th – two days after the sinking – the Piet’s crew retrieved three survivors from a liferaft. The bodies of four other Bourbon Rhode crewmembers were also recovered, while seven were never found.

A technical inspection of the Bourbon Rhode on March 8th 2019 had recommended new below-decks inspection covers for the watertight compartments for the tug’s hydraulic shark jaws, towing pins and cable lifter, the retractable anchor-handling tools that were fitted into flush deck housings at the vessel’s stern. The inspector called for new covers to be “fabricated and installed with rubber seals to prevent ingress of water in compartments during rain or heavy sea when they are not in use.” The bolt holes for the cover fastening also needed to be re-threaded, according to the report.

According to the flag state the vessel’s manager appeared to have concluded that the inspection report referred to an optional set of removable covers for the deck surface – not the inspection covers below-decks. For class, the inspection covers were not considered as part of the watertight structure, and they were not directly inspected prior to the vessel’s departure.

The flag state report said that some of the work that was intended to be done at the shipyard “was not performed due to missing materials or tools”. A survivor told the investigation that “the chief engineer reported to the master before departure that the vessel was not fully ready for the intended voyage due to the pending repairs and maintenance.”

The engine room skylight hatch had not been repaired during the drydocking, and water was reportedly leaking through the hatch into the engine room. This problem was largely fixed while the vessel was under way. The survivors said that bilge alarm system faults were also common. Former crewmembers said that this had been the case for some time during the vessel’s prior service.

The following statements were made by the three rescued crew members during interviews and in writing:

  • The Bourbon Rhode did not make a good impression upon boarding at the shipyard. All three survivors stated that they were surprised by the bad condition. One survivor stated that a senior engine crew member was worried about the technical state of the vessel not being in a condition to cross the Atlantic.
  • The initially mustered Chief Officer left the shipyard due to the bad condition of the vessel. The replacement Chief Officer also complained about the overall state of the vessel.
  • According to a survivor, the Chief Engineer was worried that the majority of the crew did not have enough experience and thus made requests to the company concerning additional crew requirements, which were partly fulfilled before departure.
  • Work that was intended to be done at the shipyard was not performed or completed, due to missing materials or tools.
  • According to a survivor, the Chief Engineer reported to the Master before departure that the vessel was not fully ready for the intended voyage due to the pending repairs and maintenance.
  • A crew member had the impression that the sea trials performed on September 10th 2019 upon completion of the overhaul were shorter than usually experienced, taking about two hours.
  • Upon departure, the vessel was considered to be in fair condition and generally ready to sail.

After leaving Las Palmas on September 17th:

  • the vessel was considered to be generally ready to sail and watertight, except for the engine room skylight hatch, which had not been repaired during the dry dock stay.
  • A few days after departure, water was reported to leak through the skylight hatch into the engine room. The problem was fixed, except for minor droplets still leaking trough.
  • One towing pin cover plate was installed and later washed away during the voyage. The other three deck cover plates were not installed and were stored at the port side tugger winch location.
  • The vessel’s ballast and bilge system were not in order and some alarm failures were noticed. As per survivors’ recollection, this had been a constant problem for years according to crew members having sailed on the Bourbon Rhode before.

In the aftermath of the accident the bareboat charterer took a number of corrective actions, some of which are still pending.

  • The Passage Plan / Routing Service procedure was upgraded.
  • A Tropical Revolving Storm awareness procedure was implemented in the SMS.
  • A ‘Condition Monitoring Tour’ Best Practice procedure was created at corporate level.

2006-built, Luxembourg-flagged, 1,375 gt Bourbon Rhode is owned by Bourbon Supply Invetissements of Marseille, France. It is managed by Bourbon Offshore Greenmar SA of Nyon, Switzerland. It was entered with Shipowners’ Club on behalf of Bourbon Marine & Logistics.