Safety of life at sea
As I have said before in these columns, it is sadly often through tragedy that the biggest improvements in safety of life at sea are made – through the formal subsequent investigations and their findings. There were countless examples of this during the 20th century including Titanic (1912), Princess Victoria (1953), Derbyshire (1980), Herald of Free Enterprise (1987), Estonia (1994) and, unfortunately, many more.
No doubt lessons will also be learned from the Costa Concordia tragedy in January 2012, the dreadful loss of the Sewol off South Korea in April 2014 and the fire on the Norman Atlantic while at sea in the Adriatic at the end of last year. Recently I was especially moved by a photograph of the bow section of the cement carrier Cemfjord sticking above the water in the treacherous waters of the Pentland Firth in January 2015. She must have capsized dramatically and suddenly giving the eight crew onboard no chance of escape. No messages of distress were sent and the bow section of the vessel was spotted by Serco Northlink’s ferry Hrossey en route to Aberdeen. The Cemfjord later sank completely with the dreadful loss of seafarers’ lives. Importantly, the Marine Accident Investigation Branch subsequently made arrangements for a remotely operated underwater vehicle to carry out a search of the wreck – deployed from the Northern Lighthouse Board’s Pharos. This action is to be admired as it is only through establishing the facts and reasons for the loss that remedial action can be taken to try to avoid similar disasters occurring in the future.
In the case of some of these recent disasters, the investigations have been somewhat overshadowed by the criminal proceedings instigated against those potentially held accountable for the disaster. The Master of the Costa Concordia, Captain Francesco Schettino, was recently found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to 16 years imprisonment. In the aftermath of the Sewol tragedy, the Master and Chief Engineer received prison sentences of 36 years and 30 years respectively, although there were calls in South Korea for the death penalty to be issued. Leaving aside the blaze of publicity in which these court proceedings have been presented in the worldwide media, a key point to note for the cruise and passenger ferry sectors is that as much scrutiny has been paid to the timing of the decision to abandon ship, as to the initial cause of the incident.
Whether investigations ultimately reveal flawed systems and procedures, human error, poor maintenance, failures by regulators and inspectors, faults in vessel design, or a combination of more than one of these factors, we owe it to all who sail on ships, big or small, to take every possible step to make safety of life at sea our number one priority.
It was fitting and somehow comforting to hear that a Memorial Service to honour and remember the eight seafarers lost in the Cemfjord tragedy was organised jointly by the Mission to Seafarers and the St John’s Episcopal Church in Wick, where the service was held on Sunday 18 January. Representatives of the ship’s operators, the Polish Consulate, RNLI, the Coastguard and many others attended. Sadly, even in these days of advanced technology, the sea occasionally extracts a heavy price from those whose living is made on it and in this case families and loved ones far from the scene of the tragedy are left to mourn. Our sympathy goes out to them at this time of sadness and loss.HAMISH ROSS, EDITOR