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Viking Sky should not have sailed, NSIA says

Five years ago the cruise ship Viking Sky (IMO 9650420) lost power during a storm when off the coast of Norway and came within a couple of hundred metres of a disastrous grounding (IMN, March 26th 2019 and several subsequent dates) before the emergency services arrived. Had that grounding occurred, evacuating the crew and passengers would have been extremely difficult, and it could have been one of the worst cruise ship disasters for decades, according to the just-released Norwegian Safety Investigation Authority (NSIA) report on the incident.

The report took no prisoners. It was critical of the cruise line and of the ship’s operational managers. It said that the design of the ship, the shipyard, and the vessel’s classification society also had a role in the incident.

The NSIA report agreed with the earlier finding of the Norwegian Maritime Authority (NMA) in that the root cause was an insufficient level of lube oil in the ship’s tanks. However, NSIA also cites possible SOLAS violations, and asserts that the ship should never have departed Tromso in the far north of Norway two days earlier.

The Viking Sky had entered service in 2017. It was one of the class of new cruise ships built in Italy by Fincantieri for Viking’s ocean cruise line. It departed Tromso on March 21st 2019, heading south-west off the coast of Norway. Two days later on the afternoon of March 23rd, during heavy seas, its functioning engines all stopped working. There were 1,374 people aboard, 915 of them passengers and the remained being crew. All propulsion and steering was lost.

Conditions were too bad to evacuate the ship, and the emergency services would take some time to arrive. The ship drifted closer and closer to shore, sometimes avoiding a grounding by only a matter of four or five metres. NSIA said that the event “had the potential to develop into one of the worst disasters at sea in modern times”.

It took just under 40 minutes for the problem to be identified and the lube oil tanks to be topped up. That restored power and the captain was able to manoeuvre the ship into deeper water. More than 400 passengers were removed by helicopter, while some 900 people remained aboard the ship, many with broken bones and injuries. The Viking Sky eventually found its way into port.

The fundamental cause of the accident was an insufficient amount of lubricating oil in all the vessel’s operating diesel generators’ lubricating oil sump tanks. During clam weather this would not be a problem, but with the ship pitching and rolling in the rough seas, the only partially full tanks saw the lube oil move back and forth, leaving periodic “gaps” when the oil could not be drawn up into the engine. As a result all of the operating engines shut down virtually simultaneously. The systems lost pressure, and the ship blacked out.

“The ship management company had no operating instructions for correct lube oil levels, which constituted a serious safety issue”, said Havard Bentsen, NSIA Inspector of Accidents.

“Leaving port with one engine unavailable, heading for Hustadvika in the middle of a storm, put everyone on board at unacceptable risk”, said Anne Ostdahl, NSIA Inspector of Accidents, noting that, since the incident occurred, the ship management company had implemented a procedure on how to handle situations where one engine is unavailable.

It took 39 minutes until both propulsion motors were operational and the ship had sufficient power to maintain between 1 and 5 knots ahead.

NSIA identified operational, technical, and organizational safety issues, all of which were factors in the engine failures. NSIA cited Viking, Wilhelmsen Ship Management, Fincantieri, and Lloyd’s Register. It called on the IMO and the International Association of Classification Societies IACS) to take actions that would prevent any such incident reoccurring.

The NSIA said that the cruise ship should never have departed Tromso, given that one of its four diesel generators was unavailable. NSIA’s report claims that the vessel did not have the redundancy required under the Safe Return to Port regulations, that it did not comply with applicable safety standards, and that it did not meet SOLAS regulations on issues such as the lube oil sump tank design. The report also asserts that the design did not meet the engine manufacturer’s recommendations.

The report also said that insufficient training probably contributed to time taken to recover from the engine black-out. It said that, while the engineers had conducted black out drills, they had not been trained for a situation where there was no available standby generator.

The Norwegian Maritime Authority concurred with much of the report, but it “respectfully disagree(d)” with the assertion by NSIA that the vessel did not comply with SOLAS regulations.

The NMA said that “as long as the ships have operated with a higher level of oil in the lubrication tanks, there have been no instances of a drop in oil pressure or blackout”.

The Authority argued that the issue of the fourth generator being out of order was not applicable, and, even if it had been operational, it would probably also have had a problem.

NSIA issued 14 safety recommendations. It recommended that Fincantieri review and strengthen the design process to ensure the lube oil sump tanks were in compliance with SOLAS. It also recommended that Lloyd’s Register review and strengthen its plan approval process. The shipowner and operator were recommended take action to ensure compliance with SOLAS. The report also advised that they implement systematic and holistic reviews of the oil monitoring system. IMO and IACS were called on to include technical guidance on the rules as they relate to the relevant oil pressure issue.

The UK, USA, Australia and Italy participated in the investigation as “substantially interested states”.

2017-built, Norway-flagged, 47,842 gt Viking Sky is owned by Viking Ocean Cruises Ship II care of manager Viking River Cruises Inc of Woodland Hills, California, USA. ISM manager is Wilhelmsen Ship Management AS of Lysaker, Norway. At the time of the incident it was entered with Steamship Mutual (Smuab) (European syndicate) on behalf of Viking Ocean Cruises Ship II. It currently retains that entry.