With a spate of incidents and accidents what price human life at sea?

Of course, we have always known that the sea can be and is a treacherous place at times; but the past few weeks have seen a spate of distressing incidents and accidents, seemingly occurring on an almost daily frequency and resulting in the loss of life with substantial damage to vessels and cargoes around the world. Before I became involved in my role as CEO of IIMS, I was blissfully unaware of the sheer number of lives lost at sea, as indeed are most members of the general public. The reason for that is simply that most marine accidents, apart from the really major ones, never make the general news agendas. When I tell my friends and family about the tragedies that routinely happen at sea, they are disbelieving.

The personal distress I have felt having seen details of one incident after another dropping into my inbox has compelled me to write a blog post if for no other reason than to remind people of what is happening around us. Our thoughts are so rightly wrapped up in the COVID-19 pandemic at the moment that it becomes easy to forget about the tragedies taking place elsewhere.

Sadly I have no solution or instant fix for what is going on and perhaps the current spike of fatalities I have alluded to is statistically nothing out of the ordinary, although for me it feels worse than whatever is deemed to be the ‘acceptable norm’.

Let’s review the evidence.

The Wakashio incident off Mauritius has captured the attention of many – and rightly so. Why the vessel deviated from her course will not be known for some time, but the capsizing of a tug assisting in the cleanup operation with the loss of three crew was shocking news and sad to hear.

Last week, I learned that a cattle vessel with a cargo of 6,000 cows on board and 43 crew went down off Japan. The final time that the Master of the Gulf Livestock 1 spoke with his partner, Typhoon Maysak was lashing his ship. “He informed her that water had entered the ship. The last thing he said was he will go to the bridge to check the situation,” Maya Addug-Sanchez, the captain’s sister, told the Guardian newspaper. Addug’s family hasn’t heard from him since. To date, only three crew members have been found.

A tragic incident took place near Southampton when a 15 year old girl on a charter vessel ride died of her injuries when the rib she was onboard is reported to have hit a buoy.

The subject of enclosed spaces has been back in the news again recently with several more reported deaths. I can only presume people are not being properly trained or having been trained have become complacent or forgetful. No-one should be dying in such circumstances in my view.

In another recent incident, four crew members were recovered dead from the dredger Waymon L Boyd, after the vessel suffered a fire at the Port of Corpus Christi, Texas and at least 11 workers lost their lives in a shipyard in Vishakhapatnam in southern India when a huge crane collapsed during load testing.

As a sector, the shipping and boating industry is determined to look for ways to develop new products, new Apps, reduce emissions, (which is, of course, great for the environment), and even to drive remote surveying technologies. Does this latent wish to push technology to its boundaries, whilst desirable, mean we have taken our eye off the safety ball? In our collective desire to enhance technology have we forgotten about doing the basics well and lost sight of the importance of keeping people safe at sea? The current spate of incidents and accidents would suggest we might have.

A fire on an oil tanker, another on a container ship, a cargo ship colliding with a fishing vessel off Taiwan resulting in twelve missing and two confirmed dead and the death of a worker involved on routine maintenance operations compound what has been a miserable couple of weeks. Are safety standards slipping and being compromised, or is this just a ‘bad run of luck’?

So what are we to deduce from all of this carnage and tragedy? Well the MAIB in the UK is certainly busy as a result, launching several new investigations, as other national accident and investigation departments will be too. It serves as a reminder of the perils that lurk at sea. It also helps me to keep focused on the important role that the marine surveyor can be called to play at such times. It is in the darker moments that he or she often brings a range of expertise and skills to bear in the aftermath of such disasters.

As always, our thoughts are with the friends and families as they cope with the bereavement of a loved one.

Mike Schwarz
IIMS Chief Executive Officer

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