Christmas casualties: are holiday periods a more dangerous time to be at sea?


by Capt. John Evanson, Master Mariner

Why was there such a concentration of maritime “casualties” over the end of year holiday period? The incidents with NORMAN ATLANTIC (IMO 9435466, built 2009), BULK JUPITER (IMO 9339947, built 2006), CEMFJORD (IMO 8403569, built 1984) and HOEGH OSAKA (IMO 9185463, built 2000) and others, all of these happened within a few days of each other. They represent a singular concentration of loss in a short and particular time frame. While the effects and their cause may appear separate, the question that has to be asked is, is there a pattern?

Looking for specific and immediate causes: Were BULK JUPITER and CEMFJORD the result of sudden cargo shift or cargo liquefaction (leading to shift); was HOEGH OSAKA the result of a sudden loss of stability due to free surface in ballast tanks, an unusual cargo shift, or was there some as yet unidentified underwater contact? And with the NORMAN ATLANTIC, who or what was the initial ignition source on the vehicle deck…? Even when the answers to those questions are finally known, in all cases there will be an underlying cause that left the ship, crew, passengers and / or cargo vulnerable to those immediate causes.

In order to identify the underlying cause, the contributing factors that are likely to be investigated include: ship age, type and design, ship operational management systems, prevailing weather conditions, operator competence and error, fatigue, manning, the vessel’s employment and of course how the ship had been maintained and operated.

Looking for “commonality” between the incidents we can quickly exclude the vessel age and type, but quality of design may be pertinent. Weather conditions while generally poor were arguably not exceptional, and in one case mainly benign. However investigators may well find common ground in particular elements associated with operator competence and error, fatigue, manning levels, vessel employment patterns and how well the ship had been maintained.

Looking somewhat anecdotally, there are a number of points which are known to happen at this time of year which may be pertinent to some or all of these incidents?

December is often a time that crew reliefs may be made early or in some cases deferred, resulting in tours of duty being either shortened or lengthened. For those returning to sea before Christmas or being asked to stay on, it may represent a promotional opportunity. That is good, but that enthusiastic new Chief Engineer or Chief Mate may find his or herself on a strange vessel, without a complete handover. That individual is then expected to operate idiosyncratic equipment, and/or in unfamiliar trades and practices. For those individuals facing longer tours, it might also lead to complacency, or despondency at being left behind. There is also a risk that while an individual can “operate” the systems, they really may not fully understand what they have been put in charge of. On vessels of a certain age, systems will have been maintained and modified over time resulting in them requiring specific methods of operation, which may no longer be quite as set out in the manual. That is if the operator gets the time to read the manual……

That lack of familiarity may have raised a question or two. All systems can vary from ship to ship and so how does the ballast system operate efficiently and safely without creating unwanted and significant free surface in too many tanks at the same time? Can you rely on the tank content gauges? To operate ballast tank valve systems: do you press and release the switch and the valve shuts completely, or do you have to hold an actuator as the valve closes… or does the computer do it all for you? Did the stevedores properly lash the cargo units and did the mate on cargo watch confirm those cargo lashings as secure? Do you secure the ballast system and tanks before pilotage or are you trying to finish the ballasting program as the ship is underway? And that rapid loss of stability due to apparent free surface… how did it happen – mechanical (impact) damage from striking an underwater object (through loss of steering, or otherwise) leading to rapid intake of water or through the failure of the ballast control program? The investigation is likely to identify which one of these points is accurate.

Alternative factors that might lead to an increase in incidents at this time of year might include fatigue, and does daylight, or at this time, the lack of it, play a part? Is everyone properly rested and alert, at what time of the day do such incidents occur? Can you observe and adequately monitor all of the systems you are in charge of within a close time period, especially during complex berthing or when navigating in confined waters.

In a perfect world essential processes should be clear, but when faced with reality on the ground we know that things can get overlooked…. Perhaps it is just the human element .At holiday times and weekends, we all have a tendency to “wind down”, in effect “take our eye off the ball”.  And Christmas is that magnified many times in Europe and other parts of the World. When there is a lot going on, our ability to handle too much information and multiple tasks is often compromised. So what are we asking of those working on and with ships?

During holiday periods are ships being operated and maintained by crews with other things on their minds? Maybe they are distracted, unfamiliar with the particular vessel, complacent, or just an unlucky victim of Statistics. The bulk carrier that sank unexpectedly in far eastern deep waters was probably always at risk due to its design and the cargo’s inherent vice; part of a now established statistical pattern for certain bulk cargoes at risk of liquefaction. The combination of poor weather patterns in the Northern hemisphere and limited daylight increases the unwillingness to check cargo stow or skip other time consuming but important processes.

And so we come to the other Maritime Christmas presents! The BLUE SKY M and EVADEEN…? Was it just coincidence or did the people traffickers deliberately choose that time of year in the hope of catching customs officials on their Christmas break, or during times of short staffing. At the same time, they seem to have increased the gain by introducing a new route and utilising vessels far bigger than previous attempts. Perhaps they thought that with the authorities having their eyes off the ball that would enable them to escape without a trace and with a lot of money. They left the refugees to their fate – but they achieved their paid-for objective of landing them on European shores.

We know that on land more individuals turn up to accident and emergency departments at the weekends and holidays, and we know from experience that more ships are hijacked in the small hours of the weekends than at any other time. If Christmas is the weekend magnified, perhaps we got off lightly with only two ship loads?

And of course distractions do mask, camouflage and mislead…. How and what measures and policies do we put in place to take account of unusual “information” levels and our oft compromised ability to perceive risk?

As a result of all of this can we come to certain basic commonalities that can be seen across all of these incidents? The time of good cheer makes us all drowsy, we all overindulge and come back afterwards with the headache from the hangover, and a list of good intentions to ensure that we all do better next time….


This paper is intended as a general summary of issues in the stated field. It is not a substitute for authoritative advice on a specific matter. It is provided for information only and free of charge. Every reasonable effort has been made to make it accurate and up to date but no responsibility for its accuracy or correctness, or for any consequences of reliance on it, is assumed by Gray Page.

* = required field
We will send you industry articles and news from Gray Page, via email. You can unsubscribe at any time. See our privacy notice.