Trust the locals to give the awesomely scary seas at the eastern end of the Pentland Firth the innocent sounding name ‘The Merry Men of Mey’, the sea state caused by wind and tide in opposition as the vast surging volume of water falls over submerged obstructions and drives around skerries and headlands.
These seas were surely the direct cause of the loss of the cement carrier Cemfjord 1,850,’84 and her complement of eight at the turn of the New Year in January 2015.
It has taken the Marine Accident Investigation Board (MAIB) nearly 15 months, but they have come up with a thorough and profoundly important report (reports are here), forensic in its analysis while giving a clear picture of the nature of the pressures on the experienced, hard working, and, yes, courageous skipper for whom they seem to have a great deal of respect. So the direct cause is almost certainly known, but it is the indirect causes which put her in jeopardy. Why was she where she was and in her condition? The report is very clear that this ship and others like her under such operating regimes and commercial pressures can be calamities waiting to happen.
The report should be a wake-up call (as if another one was needed) to protect and safeguard those like this skipper and crew, obliged to deliver their cargoes in the shortest time, and therefore lowest cost, by driving their ships hard in fair weather and foul. Just how foul that weather can be in waters like the Pentland Firth are clearly described. The report also indicates how such skippers and crews can be working their hearts out for invisible investment companies and distant managers who do not use their best endeavours to ensure the ships and their complements are as safe as they can be, and legally indeed should be.
Meanwhile, some flag states (often ‘flags of convenience’) protect themselves by passing paper surveys, reports and ‘exemptions’ around on vessels regarding safety matters that anyone in the shipping business could admit were little more than fiction. Under the Cyprus Register’s regime “Cemfjord had been inspected by the same surveyor twice a year for the previous seven years, during which time he had carried out seven full inspections and seven documentary verification inspections with no deficiencies ever having been noted”. Port State Control (PSC) inspectors had found several deficiencies and imposed detentions in that time. The report adds “Given the extent of defi ciencies identified by PSC inspectors during the same period, it is not credible for the non-exclusive surveyor to have found no shortcomings during his visits to Cemfjord”. In the 13 months prior to her sinking, Cemfjord spent 54% of that time with noted shortcomings in safety related equipment; 40% relating to lifeboats and rafts. This was only possible because the Cyprus flag state, at the request of the managers, repeatedly sent out letters permitting temporary exemptions from the SOLAS regulations.
However, that the ship should not have been where she was at that time is unarguable.
Admiralty Sailing Directions give clear warnings. “Tidal streams are highly signifi cant to navigating in or through Pentland Firth and need to be considered at all times. They encounter a number of obstructions, which give rise to eddies and races, which, in several areas of the Firth, can be very strong and extremely violent. Tidal streams run with great strength, rates up to 16 kn have been reported… Masters should therefore ensure that a close watch is kept at all times on the course and speed of their vessels, which need… “sufficient power to overcome the strengths of the tidal streams. Low powered vessels, small vessels, and vessels under sail, whatever the weather, should avoid at all costs being drawn into any race which is at strength, in particular taking care to avoid Merry Men of Mey during the W-going stream….there is a heavy breaking sea, which can be dangerous to small coasters.”
She was sailing in a westerly gale gusting Force 10, precisely in the tidal conditions she should have avoided.
But look at the pressure on the captain and crew. She was late having had problems loading which had two effects. It almost certainly meant the cargo had not settled properly and therefore would be prone to shifting, and crucially it meant the crew were tired. She was heading into a Force 8-10 and the two unrested watch keeping officers, Captain and mate, fatigued and under time pressure, were heading into waters of great danger. The wise decision in these circumstances might have been to go south-about. Rordal (Aalborg) to Runcorn being 981nm via the Pentland Firth, by the English Channel, 1,187nm. That would mean more delay and cost to the company. That wasn’t this captain’s style. Anyway, recently a sister vessel Cemisle with a new captain had done just that and earned the query from the managers as to why he had chosen that route.
Maybe Cemfjord’s Captain in his fatigue and under great commercial pressures had miscalculated his timing into the Firth and underestimated the conditions there, but inexorably he would soon be in a position where he was unable to avoid the greatest danger. He had recently escaped a cargo shifting incident in the same waters in less serious conditions and he would know how vulnerable his ‘unsettled’ cargo would be to a change of course toward safety. And the ship’s best speed was a little more than 9 knots and in such currents, at times she would have no steering control and at best would go backwards.