A combined report into two separate collisions on the same day has lifted the lid on important aspects surrounding operation of the burgeoning fleet of offshore windfarm support vessels.
The accidents involved passenger transfer vessels colliding with a floating target and a wind turbine off the UK east coast resulting in damage to both craft and injuries to personnel. The Marine Accident Investigation Branch has published a combined report into the events including recommendations to: the vessels’ owners, the windfarm operator, the National Workboat Association and the International Marine Contractors Association. Action has been taken by all involved.
In a foreword to the report, Steve Clinch, Chief Inspector of Marine Accidents points out that many of the 400 odd workboats supporting the offshore renewable energy sector are high-speed passenger transfer vessels with crews often recruited from the fishing or leisure industries. There are subtle differences however in the skills needed for each role with a gap seen as likely to grow as the renewable industry moves further offshore. A clear potential for a rise in the number and severity of accidents is seen to exist unless action is taken to ensure vessels’ crews have the necessary competencies required to operate their craft safely.
The collisions were separate and in different circumstances, both passenger transfer vessels returning to port with technicians on board after a day’s work at the windfarm. One collided with a moored target during the passage, the other with a turbine while leaving the confines of the windfarm itself. Common safety issues were identified including with the standard of watchkeeping on both vessels. The need for robust crew recruitment, training and assessment procedures was also highlighted. An aspect of modern navigation is the increasing reliability and flexibility of electronic navigational aids, used alongside the established environment of paper charts. The foreword calls for: “… recognition by the industry and regulator that the reliance on paper charts to navigate high-speed passenger transfer vessels is impractical and does not reflect the current custom of the trade”. Another finding is the “compelling need” for a best practice guide for operators of workboats and an effective means for promulgating safety lessons across the industry.
The MAIB are well known for their forensic analysis of the accidents they look into: these combined investigations are no exception and provides a ‘two steps back’ overview and assessment of the circumstances. Space does not permit detailed reporting of the findings which should be viewed as a whole. Of interest however (and relevant to the findings) are areas covering navigation and watchkeeping procedures, crew recruitment and current qualification requirements and suitability.
Both vessels were built under the SCV Code with similar crew qualification requirements including for the master, a Certificate of Competency (CoC) or Service to Yachtmaster Ocean or Offshore levels or MCA Boatmasters Licence. Other qualifications may be acceptable on a case-by-case basis and while fishing vessels are not specifically identified, the MCA does formally recognise the need to provide such equivalence for UK-issued fishing vessel qualifications. For non-UK CoCs a Certificate of Equivalent Competency (CEC) may be issued. One of the masters had not applied for such a CEC and was therefore not eligible to serve in that role, the report stating that had the master applied for a CEC he would only have been issued with one covering UK registered fishing vessels. Owners are increasingly requiring masters to hold The Large Commercial Yacht Code qualifications, driven by boats becoming larger and more complex, also enabling compliance with regulations outside the UK allowing employment of UK registered vessels and crews elsewhere in Europe.
For such small craft operating close to fixed structures, often in marginal weather and strong tidal conditions, experienced fishing vessel and small craft crews are perhaps better suited to the role than those with higher qualifications who may be out of their typical daily working environment in such circumstances. The report points out however that skippers migrating from the fishing industry may not be used to typical transit speeds of 20-25 knots and consequent reduction in thinking time.
The declared primary means of navigation for both vessels were paper charts but as is the norm with these types of craft, electronic navigation devices were the standard tools used. The report states “It is impractical to expect the master of a catamaran travelling in excess of 20 knots to leave the conning position to consult a paper chart, full size or otherwise to determine the vessels position”. It is considered reasonable however to use paper charts for passage planning and the chart plotter for passage monitoring purposes. The operation of electronic chart plotters was a particular factor in one of the accidents and those responsible are urged to ensure adequate training is provided. While not relevant to the incidents, mention is also made of the standard of chart corrections found.
The list of conclusions runs to 22 separate comments and as mentioned previously the combined investigation must be read as a whole. The first safety issue however states: “Both masters lost their situational awareness because the passage was not being properly monitored”. One master was distracted from monitoring the vessel’s passage by his demonstrating the chart plotter’s controls to a trainee master: the other did not routinely monitor the vessel’s passage by radar and was not expecting to encounter anything at close range. The issues surrounding maintaining an adequate lookout are considered. Other issues cover training and assessment of masters, passage planning and wind turbine illumination. Issues not directly contributing to the accidents are wide-ranging and include the finding that there is little consolidated marine operational guidance available to owners/managers and crews of such vessels, adding guidance is particularly important to those new to the industry.
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