In a publicly released statement on the Hong Kong flagged Hebei Spirit incident in South Korea in December 2007, the Hong Kong Marine Department has found the tug boat operator’s decision to sail in hazardous weather caused the accident.
The three page Shipping Information Note, titled Safe Towage at Sea and recently released on the Hong Kong Marine Department’s website, has found that the probable cause of the Hebei Spirit accident was the decision to commence a towing voyage of a large crane barge in hazardous weather.
The Hong Kong Marine Department’s own investigation into the incident has “revealed that the decision for the tugs and the crane barge to commence the towing voyage when adverse weather had been forecast is the main probable cause of the accident.”
The shipping note also stated three additional, contributory factors, to the accident. These were that “the towing voyage was not carried out in accordance with the conditions stipulated in the towing survey certificate; towing wire was not properly maintained; the tugs did not alert the local Vessel Traffic Service and the nearby vessels when they lost control of the navigation.”
Of interest to all ship owners, managers, operators, masters and offices, who received the shipping note, is the lessons learnt. The Hong Kong Marine Department highlights the fact that the Master in charge of the tugs underestimated the severity of the rough weather, as well as its likely impact on the towing convoy.
“He failed to take notice of the rough weather that might further deteriorate during the voyage,” the report states, adding that “the Master should have considered postponing the towing voyage until more favourable weather was expected.”
Because this did not happen, the report found that “the towing capability of the tugs could not overcome the weather conditions during the voyage.” In this instance, the tugs were towing a crane barge carrying a floating crane 140 meters high. The report states that “this large deck structure could induce large wind resistance when under strong wind conditions.”
Other observations arising from the Hong Kong Marine Department’s investigation are that after losing control of the navigation the Master of the tugs failed to immediately notify the local Vessel Traffic Centre about the “seriousness of the situation”.
Also, the wire which broke was found to be a used crane runner wire, not a dedicated towing wire. This crane runner wire had been in storage “for some time” and just before it snapped, the tug had increased its speed. The report states that “an increase of speed in rough sea conditions might exert additional strain at the towing wire…This would become critical if the towing wire was already pulled at its limit.”
Hebei Spirit’s Master and crew commended
The Hebei Spirit Master and crew’s attempt at reducing the pollution immediately after the accident was noted. Once the 140 metre high floating crane had finished bouncing along the hull of the Hebei Spirit (which took around 25 minutes) the crew commenced transferring oil from the damaged tanks. As well, collision mats were rigged over the damaged tanks and ballast was pumped to the starboard ballast tanks so the vessel would list to starboard, lowering the oil level in the damaged tanks.
“These remedial actions appeared to have reduced a certain amount of oil spillage and have fully complied with the provisions as laid down in the shipboard oil pollution emergency plan,” the shipping note states.
More to come…stay tuned
Despite the fact the Hong Kong Marine Department has concluded its official accident investigation into the Hebei Spirit incident, it will not publish its full accident report until the legal case of the Hebei Two has finished in South Korea.
Perhaps this decision is yet another indication of just how politically sensitive this case has become?