Helge Ingstad crew apparently unaware that Sola TS was “moving object”

The crew members of stricken Norwegian frigate Helge Ingstad appear to have been unaware of the inbound tanker Sola TS (IMO 9724350) before it was too late to avoid a collision, according to a preliminary marine accident report from Norway’s Accident Investigation Board (AIBN) and Defence Accident Investigation Board Norway (DAIBN).

On November 29th the initial findings listed a series of missteps on the part of warship’s crew leading up to the accident; they also described potential defects in the ship’s basic design.

The vessels collided early on November 8th outside of the Sture terminal in Øygarden Municipality, Hordaland County, Norway. The frigate ran aground on a shelf, subsequently slipping down the shelf and all-but-sinking a few days later.

At 03:40 on November 8th personnel on the bridge of the Helge Ingstad began to turn control of the ship over to the next watch. At that time, the ship’s crew was aware of three northbound ships on its radar screen and had also visually observed an object with many lights lying still just outside the Sture terminal. The Sola TS did not leave the terminal until 3:45 a.m.

The report found that when the terminal first became visible from Helge Ingstad, Sola TS was alongside at the terminal and the deck of the tanker was well-lit. The report revealed that, at a distance, it would have been difficult to separate the lights on the tanker from the lights at the terminal. The tanker’s lights would have been stationary as the tanker was still alongside the quay.

“It is highly probable that both these factors gave the crew on KNM Helge Ingstad the impression early on that the lights belonged to a stationary object,” the report stated, adding that “the tanker’s use of deck lights after departure also meant that the crew on Helge Ingstad were unable to spot the navigation lights on Sola TS”.

When Helge Ingstad said at about 04:00 that the vessel could not turn to starboard, it was based on a continued perception of the lights as being stationary and that a turn to starboard would send them straight into the lit object. The Helge Ingstad also appears initially to have been under the impression that she was being contacted by one of the three northbound ships of which the Helge Ingstad crew were aware, rather than the Sola TS, of which at that time it was not aware.

The finding was based in part on the response from the Helge Ingstad to the Sola TS’s demand  that the warship immediately turn hard to starboard to avoid a collision. The frigate’s crew indicated that they couldn’t turn in that direction because they would hit the “lighted object” along the shore, which was in fact the tanker in motion, well away from the actual shoreline. In other words, the crew on the Helge Ingstad had an incorrect impression as to their distance from the shoreline to their starboard.

The warship’s crew had told their counterparts onboard the Sola TS that they planned to pass this object before turning, which could explain why they made no attempt to manoeuvre until just before the collision. This doesn’t explain why Helge Ingstad was unaware that there was a fourth ship heading north in the fjord, since the Sola TS’s AIS transponder was on and transmitting. Radar tracks also show the tanker, meaning it should also have been visible to the frigate’s own radar.

The wiseness of the decision to change the watch on the bridge while the Helge Ingstad was in the middle of a congested shipping lane was also questioned.

The preliminary report raised questions regarding training and procedures for positively identifying ships and other potential hazards, particularly at night-time.

Further Details

Before the incident took place the frigate was on a southerly course in inshore waters north of Bergen, conducting navigational training. Vessel Traffic Service Centre on the island of Fedje (Fedje VTS) was notified that during its southbound voyage the navy ship was sailing at a speed of 17 to 18 knots. The AIS on board the frigate was set to receiver mode only.

Maltese-flagged tanker Sola TS was preparing to depart from the terminal, loaded with crude oil. The ship was boarded by a pilot and was assisted out of the terminal by two tugs. There were three other northbound vessels in the area south of the Sture terminal.

Sola TS departed the quay with her navigation lights and deck lights lit.

At about 03:57 the Sola TS pilot observed the echo of a southbound vessel on the radar, which would cross his course line. There was no AIS signal for the vessel.

The pilot called Fedje VTS and asked for the name of the vessel that was heading towards the tanker on the port bow, but VTS said they had no information about this vessel. Fedje VTS soon informed Sola TS that the vessel was possibly the frigate Helge Ingstad. The pilot on Sola TS called the frigate and requested her to turn immediately to starboard.

The frigate’s bridge crew replied that they could not turn to starboard before they had passed the object they saw on their starboard side, which it appears the Helge Ingstad thought was the shoreline, rather than the Sola TS.

Within minutes, by just after 04:00, the frigate had approached to within 400 metres from Sola TS. The frigate had not changed course, so both the pilot and Fedje VTS called her requesting the vessel to act immediately. Shortly after this the Helge Ingstad deployed an avoidance manoeuvre, but it was too late. The two vessels collided.

The frigate lost control of rudder and propulsion, and began drifting towards shore, where it grounded. Helge Ingstad started taking on water, and the crew was evacuated.

The AIBN is continuing its investigations, focusing on human factors, collaboration on the bridge, training and procedures, traffic control, language and communication, technology, and technical, operational, organisational and strategic choices.

2017-built, Malta-flagged, 62,557 gt Sola TS is owned by Twitt Navigation care of manager Tsakos Energy Navigation Ltd (TEN Ltd) of Athens, Greece. It is entered with Britannia Club on behalf of Twitt Navigation Ltd.