FOC shipowner put 23 lives and Newfoundland’s waters at risk — just to save money

Canada’s ITF inspectors board Flag of Convenience ships daily; the seafarers we meet and the conditions we find them in — sometimes cheated, sick, underfed, denied a return home when their contracts are done —  are all we need to convince us the work is worth it.

But it’s nice to have the country’s top safety inspectors confirm that foreign ships run by companies too cheap to maintain their vessels or spend on safety really do endanger both lives and our marine environment.

The Transportation Safety Board has just released its findings on the grounding of the Panamanian-flagged MV John I, which ran aground off southwest Newfoundland in March of last year.

The report is hair-raising.

According to the TSB’s investigation, the ship’s seawater cooling system (which uses seawater to cool the engine) failed — and because parts on it were worn and indicators were missing, the crew trying to fix it failed too. The engine room flooded, steering was lost and the John I began to drift toward the shoals 41 nautical miles away — faster than the commercial tow that the captain had ordered could arrive. The captain, working with a small-scale photocopied chart that didn’t show all present hazards, decided he’d drop anchor if he needed to. The coast guard, knowing the tug was too far away and anchoring was a poor and last resort, sped to the scene and with the John I at growing risk of grounding, offered to secure a tow line. With high winds picking up dangerously fast, the captain instead spent 20 minutes debating the potential cost of a coast guard tow with the Turkish owners. When he finally asked for a coast guard price, he was told there wasn’t one. So he accepted. Coast guard crew attempted to secure a tow line. In below-freezing temperatures and with the surface covered in ice, the effort failed. Anchors were dropped but failed to stop the drift, and the John I grounded.

Indecisive. Cheap. Penny-pinching. Negligent. Insufficiently concerned with the lives of the men on board or the oceans that would have suffered had the hull (which suffered tears and punctures) actually cracked. Pick your conclusion.
More specifically, the reports says:

  • Part of a valve on the system that cools the engine was missing; other parts were “in disrepair” and “unreliable.” A positioning indicator that would show crew their adjustments had been made properly was missing too.
  • The John I’s onboard manual said that in an emergency, the captain was responsible for decisions and that “guidance imposed by shore management must not detract him from either his authority or responsibility when dealing with safety or pollution prevention. He must not wait for approval to act.”
  • When the ship started to drift, the captain made decisions based on an “on-board small-scale photocopied chart (that) provided little detail of the hazards along the shoreline. With no other navigational information, the master was unaware of the steep rise of the sea bed and the presence of shoals along the coastline where the vessel was drifting.”
  • Although sailing in ice-covered waters, crew were not adequately familiarized with the cooling system they needed, nor had they properly prepared the cooling system for operating in ice-covered waters.
  • “The delay in starting the towing operation in this occurrence was a contributing factor to the grounding.”

It’s a perfect illustration of FOC issues that ITF inspectors discover or are told about by crew every week of the year in Canada and around the world: dangerous equipment and practices created by putting the bottom line first.

Sadly, these are the kind of foreign-flagged ships the present Canadian government is trying to open our coasts to.  Cabotage — coastal protection by nations of their own waters for their own domestic ships — is under attack here, in Australia, in Norway and in Chile, to name just a few countries where shady operators are trying to gain a toehold.  More on that another day.


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