Although bad weather conditions played a role in the grounding of the container ship Ever Given, the investigation report published by the Panama Maritime Authority also exposes other issues. Such as the pilots speaking Arabic, thereby sidelining the bridge team, who could not understand them, and the pilots giving orders that the master tried to correct.
On 23 March 2021, the Suez Canal was blocked for six days after the grounding of MV Ever Given, a 20,000 TEU container vessel. The 400-metre-long vessel was struck by strong winds on the morning of 23 March 2021, and ended up wedged across the waterway with its bow and stern stuck in the canal banks, blocking all traffic until it could be refloated by Boskalis’ subsidiary Smit Salvage on 29 March 2021. In that time, a traffic jam of hundreds of ships ensued and worldwide trade was disrupted.
After the Ever Given was freed, the ship was detained by the Egyptian authorities for months. During that time, the owner Shoei Kisen and the Suez Canal Authority were in dispute about compensation. It is unclear exactly how much was paid, but it was rumoured to be 540 million dollars and a new tugboat.
Only when an agreement was reached about the payment of compensation to the canal authority was the Ever Given allowed to leave. The container ship left the Suez Canal at the beginning of July. The vessel then anchored for several days near the port of Port Saïd to prepare for its journey to be resumed. The Ever Given finally arrived in Rotterdam on 29 July.
The Panama Maritime Authority has now published its report following investigation of the incident. The conclusions are as follows:
- The Vessel Traffic Management System (VTMS), pilots and master had not properly evaluated bad weather conditions especially strong winds and reduced visibility, as a risk condition for a VLCC vessel with a large area exposed to the wind.
- The vessel did not implement relative preventive measures against bad weather conditions (i.e. to be aided by tugboats as indicated in the Suez Canal rules Art. 58 or even to postpone its Suez Canal transiting).
- The non-use of tugboats in a restricted area to better control the manoeuvrability of the ship, contributed to the occurrence of the grounding.
- The pilots conducted the pilotage without requesting assistance from the master, who was more familiar with vessel manoeuvring characteristics.
- Although the captain intervened in the orders given by the pilot, instructing the helmsman to keep the ship in the middle of the channel, they were not effective in preventing the grounding.
- Bridge team did not realise the vital importance of effective/efficient communication between the bridge crew and pilots. Discussions between pilots in the Arabic language led to the rest of the bridge team not understanding the pilots’ concerns and potential hazards, and as suc it was impossible to conduct a risk assessment timey and effectively, to implement corrective actions, or even to request assistance from the VTMS.
- According to the Suez Canal regulations, the captain has command of the ship at all times, and the pilot or pilots only fulfill an advisory role.
- According to the Suez Canal regulations, the permissible speed for ships is 8.64 knots, on average, the MV Ever Given sailed at a speed higher than was allowed.
- The squat and bank effect, the speed and the changes in the direction of the wind and the hard helm orders directly influenced the loss of manoeuvrability of the ship.
Preventive measures and recommendations
There will be always risks for “vessel grounding” during transiting canals, however the appropriate preventing measures need to implement, in order to minimise risks and relative consequences. The Panama Maritime Authority recommends the following preventive measures are recommended:
Master and officers should be familiar with, and undertake relative training on:
- Company SMS sections for navigations/high risk operations (i.e. “transit canal”). It is recommended that prior to any transit in the Suez Canal, the team leader (master) should gather deck/engine officers to demonstrate, and explain the proper marine practice to enhance teamwork consensus and safety awareness, regarding navigation in this canal.
- Establish clear communication during pilotage. It is recommended that the pilot and the captain, in the familiarisation meeting prior to starting navigation in the Suez Canal, establish the language in which communications will be carried out, preferably English, which is the commonly accepted language for onboard communications.
- Evaluate the pilot’s actions. It is recommended that the bridge team members must not be over-confident about the pilot’s abilities and skills. In some situations, the pilot may not be familiar with the particular design of the vessel and manoeuvring characteristics, which could lead to undesirable circumstances. Therefore, the captain must intervene if he considers it necessary, since according to the regulation of the Suez Canal, the role of the pilot is that of an advisor.
- Pay attention to the transit. It is recommended that the bridge team should monitor the pilot’s orders and ensure that all actions taken are timely, efficient, and effective. Additionally, the bridge team should try as much as possible and always take into consideration the pilot’s advice, to follow the passage plan, which has been properly designed, thorough checks, and can provide valuable information, such as abort points, safe transit speed, wheel over position, no go areas, contingency plans, etc.
- Pay attention to turns and the vessel’s position. Proceed with utmost attention when the vessel is approaching a significant turn when transiting channels and with safe speed. Also, the vessel should be positioned at the centre of the canal. This way, any potential bank effect will be reduced to a minimum, the vessel will be able to turn smoothly and there will be extra time to react in case of a navigational error. The rate of turn should never be greater than 10°/min.
To the company:
Although the company safety management system (SMS) was found adequate, properly implemented and maintained o/b, there should be always space for further improvement/development. Therefore, additional internal auditing is advised for operators/managers in order to evaluate the implementation/performance of the company SMS and ensure proper bridge management, in special case such as transit the canal.
The following preventive measures, which are related to the causes and contributing factors of the current serious maritime casualty, are recommended:
- Although it has been observed that the company implements a sufficient training system o/b, it will be reasonable to embrace specific training courses/titles regarding transit in the Suez Canal that could be considered to be part of the o/b training system.
- The company should be notified in order to notify their whole fleet about “lessons learned” with an emphasis on the master’s authority and responsibilities during vessel transit of the Suez Canal. It is essential to understand that the master is always in command of the vessel and that the pilots only act as
- The company should implement training campaigns/seminars for the bridge team in order to highlight and explain the importance of squat calculations, the bank’s impact on their fleet.
To the Suez Canal Authority
It has to be highlighted that during the process of casualty investigation, very limited information/data was released/received from the side of the Suez Canal Authority. Taking into consideration the increased number and size of vessels that are crossing the canal, the risk of marine casualties/incidents within the canal is getting higher.
In view of the above, the Suez Canal Authority should consider reviewing its procedures and regulations, as well as training of Suez Canal pilots, in order to ensure vessel safety navigation transit within Canal and minimise the risk of grounding.
The following areas could be considered for further improvement:
- As the marine industry tends to build larger vessels, training of Suez canal’s pilots with respect to manoeuvring (within the canal) of large size vessels, as well as with the effect of wind especially to containers vessels, should be considered as mandatory.
- Working language of Suez canal’s pilots, especially when two pilots are on board, should be imposed to be English. Discussions between pilots in Arabic language, with respect to navigation/manoeuvring of vessel, does not allow master (no Arabic speaking) to identify potential risks and implement corrective actions in time.
- Taking into consideration frequency, similarity and consequences of marine casualties/incidents in the Suez Canal, SCA should consider to implement a system of alerts notices and “lesson to learn” to the vessels transiting the canal as a preventive measure to minimise risk for re-occurrence as well as to reduce relative consequences.
- SCA should consider as a mandatory requirement, prior to a vessel transiting the Suez Canal, that a risk assessment conducted by the vessel bridge team is reviewed and approved by Canal pilots.
- Refreshment courses for Suez Canal pilots with respect to squat, bank suction, bank cushion effects on different types of ships, that transit in the Suez Canal, as well as on canal characteristics (winds, currents, depth. etc.), should be considered to be conducted on regular basis.
- SCA should develop and implement contingency plan procedures, including details for tug boat assistance, and same should be shared with master and be included in Suez Canal transit risk assessment conducted by the bridge team.
- The bollard pulls of the tugboats available in the Suez Canal for salvage operations should be appropriate according to the size of the vessel, especially for large ships.
- SCA should ensure that latest Suez Canal regulations for navigation are published on the SCA official website, obsolete documents should be removed.
Picture by the Panama Maritime Authority.