Collision partly down to lack of compliance with COLREGS, says Singapore TSIB

Graham Wilson, Associate director at Britannia managers Tindall Riley, has reported on a recent casualty investigation report published by the Transport Safety Investigation Bureau (TSIB) which highlighted “some sadly all too familiar lessons regarding the appropriate actions to be taken both before and after a collision”.

On March 15th 2018 9,850 teu container ship APL Southampton (IMO 9462017) was on passage between the ports of Xiamen and Ningbo in China when she collided with a 46m Chinese fishing vessel, the Zhe Ling Yu 52035 during the hours of darkness and dense fog. The traffic in the area was also dense, with Zhe Ling Yu one of a large number of fishing vessels operating in the vicinity at the time.

The collision resulted in the capsizing and sinking of Zhe Ling Yu, with one confirmed fatality, a further crew member reported missing and eight of the crew injured. APL Southampton sustained minor damage to her bulbous bow, with no injuries to crew.

APL Southampton had departed Xiamen pilot station before noon on March 15th with an ETA at the Ningbo pilot station, some 460nm away, on 08:30 the following morning. This required an average speed of about 21kts. During the evening of March 15th APL Southampton was proceeding on a general North East course at 21kts on autopilot off the coast of Zhejiang province in the East China Sea. The third Officer (3/O), a Malaysian national, was on the Bridge, assisted by a Filipino Able seaman (AB) as lookout.

As the evening progressed, the ship encountered intermittent fog, reducing the visibility at times to less than 1nm. Varying concentrations of fishing vessels were also being encountered. The 3/O used the autopilot to pass them at a distance of between 0.2nm and 0.4nm. At around 23:13 the Taizhou vessel traffic system (VTS) broadcast a Securite message on VHF regarding the heavy fishing traffic in the area as the ship proceeded towards a further group of such vessels. One of these was Zhe Ling Yu, which had been acquired on APL Southampton‘s automatic radar plotting aid (ARPA) radars. The target data confirmed that Zhe Ling Yu was heading east at a speed of 1.4kts, with a bow crossing range of 1.3nm about 15 minutes later.

At about 23:23 an unidentified automated collision warning was directed to APL Southampton by VHF. The AB subsequently asked whether he should call the master (a Romanian national), but the 3/O declined to do so.

At 23:29 the steering was changed to manual and the 3/O initially altered course to starboard in an attempt to increase the closest point of approach (CPA) with a group of fishing vessels on the starboard beam. He then instructed the helm to be put to port, followed by starboard, then back to hard port to attempt to pass astern of a second group of fishing vessels, which included the Zhe Ling Yu. Around the same time, the latter’s speed increased gradually to about 5.7kts, without any significant change in course, reducing the CPA with APL Southampton.

At about 23:33 the 3/O reportedly saw one of the fishing vessels cross ahead at close range on the radar, coinciding with a sound of “clattering” on the VDR. The AB recalled briefly observing a green light subsequently passing on the ship’s starboard side.

The 3/O and AB discussed whether they might have hit one of the fishing vessels and at 23{35 the 3/O called the master, who arrived on the bridge two minutes later. The 3/O briefed the master on the poor visibility, heavy traffic and close-quarter situation with the fishing vessel, whose AIS icon and radar target acquisition symbol were no longer visible. The master took over the con, and instructed the AB to steer clear of some nearby fishing vessels, but the ship otherwise continued on passage, with the steering reverting to autopilot at 23:43.

Although no distress alert was received, subsequent messages were received on APL Southampton’s radar indicating a possible collision. Despite conversations between the master and 3/O regarding the likelihood of the collision, no apparent attempt was made to try to contact Zhe Ling Yu or report the situation to shoreside authorities.

The investigation was unable to ascertain any information regarding the watchkeeping arrangement on Zhe Ling Yu, nor the availability of lights onboard or its ability to make sound signals. The China Maritime Safety Administration (MSA) later reported that it had been fishing at the time of the collision.

Wilson said that the lessons learned from this incident fell into two broad categories, relating to the actions before and after the collision:

• Failure to comply with the COLREGs

  1. The accident reiterated the importance of effective bridge watchkeeping and compliance with the collision regulations. Neither ship properly assessed the risk of collision nor took appropriate actions to avoid the collision:
  2. There was no evidence to confirm that Zhe Ling Yu complied with requirements of COLREGs, such as keeping a proper lookout or assessing the risk of collision. The investigation noted anecdotal evidence that the crew of fishing vessels in this area might lack familiarity with the COLREGs. Watchkeepers on board merchant ships therefore needed  to recognise the possible hazards of navigating in close proximity to such fishing vessels.
  3. APL Southampton did not comply with various aspects of the COLREGs, including not proceeding at a safe speed appropriate to the traffic density (Rule 6); not taking appropriate actions when navigating in restricted visibility. This included incorrectly altering course to port for a vessel forward of its beam which should be avoided as far as possible (Rule19); and not using the appropriate sound signals of one prolonged blast every 2 minutes or less (Rule 35). The coaming lights had also not been switched on to increase visibility, contrary to the master’s night orders.

• Failure to reduce speed

  1. Had the 3/O of APL SOUTHAMPTON reduced speed when encountering restricted visibility and large concentrations of fishing vessels, this would have provided greater time and opportunity to take appropriate and effective action to avoid a collision. It was possible that the 3/O’s decision was influenced by the master’s night orders, which stated “Keeping required speed for arrival at pilot station”. This was contrary to the requirement in the company’s Navigation in Restricted Visibility checklist that required confirmation of “Safe speed adopted”. Wilson said that the accident highlighted the importance of commercial considerations not being allowed to override navigational safety. • Ineffective passage plan
  2. The area of the collision was widely known to be associated with high concentrations of fishing vessels and fog, with safety notices having been published in May 2016 and September 2017 by the China MSA and Ningbo MSA respectively. Had such information been taken into account while preparing APL Southampton’s passage plan, then consideration could have been given, for example, to reducing speed over certain legs of the voyage; increasing the bridge team manning; or altering the route to the east.

• Inadequate bridge manning

  1. The investigation concluded that the bridge team composition on APL Southampton at the time of the collision was inadequate and that the 3/O was likely overwhelmed by the amount of information to be processed. This would have been exacerbated by the high workload associated with navigating in an area of restricted visibility and high concentration of fishing vessels. The investigation was unable to determine why the 3/O did not call for assistance before the collision, despite the AB advising him and which was also required in the SMS and master’s standing orders. Had he done so, then additional support would have been available to help increase situational awareness and deal with the developing situation.

• Failure to render assistance (‘Hit and Run’)

  1. Various international conventions, including SOLAS1 and UNCLOS2 , place a duty on a master to render assistance to a ship in distress, including following a collision. The other fishing vessels in the area may have been best placed to assist Zhe Ling Yu, but the bridge team on APL Southampton failed to establish whether there had been a collision, and whether the crew of Zhe Ling Yu were safe, as well as not reporting the situation. Wilson said that this was “disappointing” and against the moral traditions of the sea.

2012-built, Singapore-flagged, 128,929 gt APL Southampton is owned by CMB Ocean 8 Leasing Co Pte Ltd care of manager APL Co Ltd of Singapore. ISM manager is CMA CGM International Shipping of Singapore. It is entered with North of England on behalf of APL Co Pte Ltd.