Court fines master for pumping out cargo hold’s bilges in a storm

The Maritime Disciplinary Court of the Netherlands has fined the captain of general cargo ship Alaskaborg (IMO 9466374) for pumping out the bilges of a hold during a storm. The captain had not realized that the bilges were partially flooded with fuel oil.

On February 7th 2022 the Alaskaborg departed the small St Lawrence River port of Baie Comeau, Quebec, heading for Rotterdam, Netherlands, and carrying a load of crushed carbon anodes (spent anodes from aluminium production).

During the evening of February 9th the vessel was under way off Newfoundland and found itself in a storm. The duty engineer reported a bilge alarm from the bilge-well in the number-two cargo hold. Following normal procedure the engineers started up the bilge ejector pump. However the alarm did not turn off and the ejector vacuum level showed that there was still fluid in the bilge.

The chief engineer consulted with the captain and the chief mate about the next steps to take. It had been snowing while the ship was loading in Baie Comeau, and they suspected that the bilge alarm might be from melting snow or water ingress. Apparently this had been the problem in a previous incident.

The ship was rolling and pitching, with seawater on deck, and the captain decided that it was too dangerous to send a crewmember forward to check the hold that night. Instead, he agreed with the chief engineer to keep the bilge ejector running until daylight and to await better weather.

The next morning the engineer stopped the bilge ejector and the chief mate went forward to check the number-two hold. He discovered that a tweendeck hatch had broken loose from its lashings, fallen into the hold and cut a hole into a fuel tank. Very low sulphur fuel oil (VLSFO) had mixed with the cargo in the hold and had collected in the bilge well on the port side forward. Therefore it was not melted snow or spray water that had been pumped overboard in the previous 12 hours, but oil.

The bilge ejectors had been running for about 12 hours, pumping part of the leaked fuel oil spill out and over the side.

The Netherlands’ Human Environment and Transport Inspectorate (ILT) charged the captain with running the bilge ejector without knowing what was being pumped, causing the VLSFO to be spilled over the side. The ILT inspector also claimed that the master should have considered additional possible sources of the bilge alarm on only one bilge well.

The disciplinary court ruled that the master made a reasonable assumption that the bilge alarm was either water ingress or snowmelt and “should not have considered another cause” as a possibility. However, the court also ruled that the master should have had the bilge contents pumped into a ballast tank in order to keep the substance contained, as a hedge against the chance that the unknown fluid in the hold was not water. It was technically possible to pump the bilges into a ballast tank, but it had not been done before, and there was no official procedure for doing so.

The court imposed a fine of about $1,000 on the master, with an additional suspended fine of $1,000 to be forfeited in the event of any future violation.

2012-built, Netherlands-flagged, 11,885 gt Alaskaborg is owned by Alaskaborg Beheer BV care of manager Wagenborg Shipping BV of Delfzjil, Netherlands. It is entered with NorthStandard (North of England) on behalf of CV MS Alaskaborg.