Loss of propulsion major factor in El Faro sinking, says USCG

Loss of propulsion during extremely heavy weather was revealed as a major contributing factor to the sinking of the El Faro during hurricane Joaquin on October 1st 2015, according to The USCG Marine Board Report on the incident.

The USCG has issued an alert informing operators of the role that the main propulsion lube oil system was found to have played in the sinking of the cargo ship close to the eye of Hurricane Joaquin near the Bahamas on October 1st 2015, while en route from Jacksonville, Florida to Puerto Rico. All 33 crew died.

The exact operational status of the ship’s vital engineering equipment during the hours preceding the casualty could not be determined, but bridge audio recordings indicated that El Faro lost lube oil pressure to the main propulsion turbine and reduction gear bearings, resulting in loss of propulsion.

USCG said that it was believed that the vessel’s substantial list, coupled with trim by the bow, caused the main engine lube oil pump to lose suction.

A detailed modelling and static analysis of El Faro’s lube oil system determined that a severe inclination of the ship, coupled with a relatively low volume of oil in the sump, would likely result in a loss of pump suction.

The USCG noted that, although the El Faro’s engineering plant configuration was similar in design to most steam turbine ships of a similar age, the vast majority of large oceangoing commercial ships currently operating have marine diesel engines as the primary source of ship propulsion. However, failure of a vessel’s lube oil system generally means a loss of propulsion for all types of engineering plants. For a single-turbine ship like El Faro, this type of casualty would result in a total loss of manoeuvrability until the system could be restored.

The USCG said that there was no compelling evidence to suggest that US vessels were not in compliance with the relevant CFR and SOLAS standards. However, given the criticality of propulsion and essential auxiliary machinery, particularly in heavy weather or high-traffic areas, the USCG strongly recommended that operators verify that their main propulsion machinery, essential auxiliary systems and emergency generators were designed in compliance with the CFR, SOLAS and Classification Society requirements for operation in static and dynamic conditions of list and trim.

In addition, The USCG said that engineering department personnel should review the design, arrangement, limiting angles of inclination, normal and limiting high/low lubricating oil sump levels and casualty control procedures for all systems vital to the propulsion and safety of the vessel to better understand the possible ways to mitigate the effects of heavy weather on vessel operations.