The U.K.’s Marine Accident Investigation Branch has concluded that a cruise ship which hit rocks and lost power last year was due to poor planning and "poor bridge team management and navigational practices." The cruise ship sustained major damage to its hull which disabled one or its two propellers. Yet, what makes this grounding particularly egregious is that the captain ordered the cruise director to tell the passengers after the dangerous grounding that "all is well" and he proceeded on with the cruise while neither the master, the cruise line nor its shoreside managers reported the incident to the U.K. Coast Guard. 

The controversy arises out of an incident In May of last year, the Bahamas-registered cruise ship, the the MV Hamburg, owned by Conti Group, bareboat chartered to Hamburg Cruises SA, and managed at the time by by V.Ships, grounded on charted rocks in the Sound of Mull, Scotland on its voyage to Tobermory.  

According to the MAIB report (Crown copyright, 2016), the Bahamas-registered passenger ship had MAIB Report Hamburg Grounding Crown Copyright, 2016previously left Bremerhaven, Germany bound for London, England. The ship was scheduled to complete a cruise around England, Ireland and Scotland, including Tobermory, Scotland.  The U.K. had issued a gale warning for the Irish Sea prompting the master of the Hamburg to increase the speed of the ship so to reach the protected bay of Tobermory before the weather deteriorated.   

The Tobermory harbor association informed the ship that it could not safely enter Tobermory Bay because other smaller cruise ships were moored in the bay.  However, the master decided to proceed toward Tobermory with a new plan to drift in the Sound of Mull, outside of the bay, until the other ships left the bay. The weather conditions included a moderate swell and the wind was force 6 to 7 gusting up to 40 knots.

Having been unable to enter Tobermory Bay on arrival, the bridge team did not re-evaluate or amend the passage plan.

After one of the cruise ships left the bay and, later, the second cruise ship pulled its anchor and proceeded to depart the bay, the Hamburg proceeded toward Tobermory.  Meanwhile, other vessels, the motor yacht Nahlin and a bulk carrier, Yeoman Bridge, approached the area. 

The officer of the watch and an inexperienced cadet on the Hamburg plotted the vessel’s position on a paper chart, but were doing so ‘infrequently and irregularly." At one point, the cadet observed that his plotted position of the ship was some distance away from the officer’s position but closer to the shoals. However, he did not consult the officer and assumed his plotting was incorrect. This led him to remove his plotting from the paper chart using an eraser. 

The master was preoccupied with the marine traffic as the Hamburg approached the shoals and permitted the ship to hit the rocks. The ship "shook violently" as it struck the rocks but it did not become fast on the rocky shoals.  The port propeller was damaged with large portions sheared off and malformed; the port propeller shaft was distorted; the port rudder was displaced; and, the hull was heavily indented from the stern to mid-ship. The full extend of the damages was unknown to the master at this time. 

The ship temporarily lost power, due to the activation of a switchboard trip, and navigational systems and radar were temporarily shut down. Officers on the ship informed the mater that the main port engine had shut down and there was a problem with the port propeller and that it could not be used.  

The master decided proceeded on to Tobermory on one engine. The master ordered the cruise director to make an announcement to the passengers "telling them that all was well and that the cruise would continue." The MAIB report also noted that "despite the loud noise and vibration resulting from the grounding, the bridge team did not initiate the post-grounding checklist, (and) no musters were held . . "  

Upon entering Tobermory Bay, the master observed that there were many smaller boats which were moored in the bay. He decided to avoid the congestion and drop anchor near the entrance to the bay rather than at the position designated by the Tobermory bay association. A marine manager from the bay association arrived near the Hamburg in a powered rigid inflatable once the Hamburg had stopped and tried to communicate with the ship via VHF radio but was initially unsuccessful. She later communicated with the bridge team, advising them that there was more shelter further inside the bay but the officer of the watch said that the Hamburg would not proceed further into the bay. The ship began to drag the anchor and came perilously close to grounding again. The master then elected to back the ship out of the harbor and pull its anchor without further contact with the harbor association.

After leaving Tobermory Bay, the master attempted to notify the designated person ashore at the ship’s managers, V.Ships, to notify him of the grounding. The master spoke to V.Ships office, but he did not reach either the designated person ashore or the back-up contact, identified in the report as the V.Ships fleet manager, according to the MAIB report. The master then telephoned the technical consultant at Hamburg Cruise SA.  "It was agreed that the vessel would proceed to Belfast, Ireland for an underwater inspection." The Hamburg Shipping consultant then informed V.Ships of the grounding.

Incredibly, neither the master, Hamburg Shipping nor V.Ships reported the grounding to the U.K. Coast Guard, or the Tobermory harbor association or the MAIB. The report then continues:

" . . . the Dublin Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre (MRCC) was alerted to the accident when the concerned mother of a crew member telephoned them. She had been having a telephone conversation with the crew member about the accident when mobile phone contact was suddenly lost. Fearing the worst, she contacted the coastguard. Dublin MRCC, which was aware of Hamburg’s new destination port, warned Belfast MRCC that the passenger vessel might have been involved in a grounding. Belfast MRCC then contacted Hamburg and, in conversation with the master, established that the vessel had grounded earlier in the day. The master also confirmed that Hamburg was proceeding using one of its two propeller shafts since one had been rendered unserviceable by the grounding, but stated that he was content with the situation and was not in need of assistance."

While the Hamburg proceeded to Belfast, weather conditions worsened overnight. With with only one working propeller shaft, Hamburg struggled to make progress to Belfast. The master chose to "heave-to" in the Irish Sea and wait for the gale force winds to abate before continuing on passage for Belfast. ("Heave-to" in the report means "when a vessel is headed into the wind and swell with its engines MAIB Report Hamburg Groundingrunning but her position does not change.") The MAIB found the decision to sail for Belfast “without first developing a plan with the vessel’s senior officers, technical managers and the relevant authorities ashore” was “inappropriate and incurred additional unnecessary risks.”

The full extent of the damage to the Hamburg was revealed only after divers inspected the hull once the ship arrived in Dublin and was later taken to dry dock. It took approximately three months to complete the repairs to the ship.  

In June last year, the ship’s captain, Joao Manuel Fernandes Simoes, was prosecuted for failing to prepare a passage plan under SOLAS and failing to report the accident contrary to the Merchant Shipping Regulations. He admitted failing to properly plan the Hamburg’s passage into the bay, and to report the incident to authorities. A Belfast magistrate fined him a total of £800 plus costs. No penalties were levied against the cruise line or the ship’s managers. 

The MAIB comprehensively addressed errors by the bridge team and the failure to modify the ship’s passage plan and other factors which led to the grounding. A number of newspapers and news organizations like the BBC covered this aspect of the MAIB report. In my view, accidents like this can happen even with the most experienced bridge team and mariners at the helm. But, to me, the media has not addressed the most egregious and indefensible aspect of the incident, namely the misleading and deceitful information ordered by the master to be told to the passengers, the decision to proceed to cruise to Belfast without fully understanding the compromised and unseaworthy condition of the ship, and the refusal of the master, cruise line officials and ship managers to notify the U.KS. Coast Guard, the Tobermory harbor association or the U.K. Marine Accident Investigation Branch.

The master should have obviously sounded a crew alert and mustered the passengers as required by the Safety Management System checklist while the officers checked the extent of the damage and determine whether it was necessary to abandon ship or disembark the passengers in Tobermory. The master’s decision to sail on to Belfast in a damaged ship in rough weather seems particularly cavalier and dangerous to the passengers and crew members.    

Credit: Photos and report U.K. Marine Accident Investigation Branch (Crown copyright, 2016).

  • John Goldsmith

    So, what you are saying is “Oops” just doesn’t cut it?