Passenger vessel grounding shows risks of Arctic travel

An investigation by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) has determined that voyage planning in the Canadian Arctic “has unique risks that require additional mitigation measures in order to ensure the safety of passenger vessels, and to protect the vulnerable Arctic environment”.

The TSB said that “until the coastal waters surrounding the Canadian Arctic Archipelago are surveyed to modern or adequate hydrographic standards, and if alternate mitigation measures are not put in place, there is a persistent risk that vessels will make unforeseen contact with the sea bottom”.

The TSB recommended that the Department of Transport, in collaboration with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, develop and implement mandatory risk mitigation measures for all passenger vessels operating in Canadian Arctic coastal waters.

The investigation related to the running aground of passenger ship Akademik Ioffe (IMO 8507731) in the Canadian Arctic on August 24th 2018. A number of safety deficiencies were identified, as well as risks to be addressed.

The 30-years-old, Russia-registered 117.1 metre vessel was sailing through a remote area which none of the crew had ever visited before, and which was not surveyed to modern hydrographic standards. The ship deviated from its original voyage plan because of concerns about the weather impacting a planned passenger excursion. In preparing a new voyage plan to accommodate this, the master relied on a Canadian chart, but was unaware it contained only partial bathymetric data. He therefore took no additional precautions to mitigate the risks of navigating in this area.

The low-water depth aural alarms on both echo sounders had been regarded as a nuisance, so had been turned off.

Just before the grounding the Officer of the Watch had been multi-tasking, while the helmsman was steering the vessel. With no other crew engaged in monitoring the situation or navigation equipment, the under-keel water depth steadily decreased. The vessel then ran aground on an uncharted shoal.

The TSB noted that more than 85% of Canadian Arctic waters have inadequate hydrographic data information. It said that the likelihood of a future similar occurrence involving passenger vessels engaged in adventure tourism was high. The TSB also warned that, when incidents did occur, the cold, vast, and sparsely populated region presented additional risks to passengers’ chances of survival.

This was compounded by a lack of timely search and rescue response in the area. The TSB has therefore urged Transport Canada and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to develop and implement mandatory risk-mitigation measures for all passenger vessels operating in these waters.

Although the recommendation is not prescriptive, the Board highlighted optional measures which could include requiring more detailed inspections of vessels prior to entering the Arctic, or possibly prohibiting vessels from transiting Arctic waters not adequately surveyed.

Other measures noted in the report included the mandatory carriage of additional navigational aids, mandatory use of supernumerary navigational experts, or ensuring other vessels are always nearby.

In the Akademik Ioffe incident no-one was injured and all 163 people on board were rescued, but the vessel sustained major damage to its hull.

1989-built, Russia-flagged, 6,450 gt Akademik Ioffe is owned and managed by Shirshov Institute of Moscow, Russia.