Superyacht safety flyers & reporting

Superyacht safety and the many lessons to be learned from Safety Reports.

Safety flyers

The Cayman Islands’ Ship Registry is home to many superyachts, and its surveyors have a realistic attitude to issuing Safety Reports. They believe that by communicating advice and guidance to superyachts, accidents may be prevented. Angus McLean, the Cayman Registry’s principal surveyor for statutory compliance and casualty investigation, explains, “Normally, we do not formally investigate ‘near misses’, although we do reserve the right to do so in cases where there are significant safety lessons to be learned.” The registry recently published a safety notice following the event mentioned earlier, which occurred on board one of its flagged superyachts.

The incident was triggered when controls for the vessel’s watertight doors failed, causing them to close early and trap a crewman. He called for help and had his leg released by another member of the crew using local controls. No one was harmed but the registry seized the opportunity to issue a Safety Flyer to highlight the specific safety issues involved and to serve as a reminder of the importance of on-going training aboard.

Safety Flyers contain urgent information and are produced for marine safety purposes only, on the basis of information available at the time. Their objective is to prevent future accidents through the ascertainment of an incident’s causes and circumstances; the registry is at pains to clarify that its investigations are not to determine liability or to apportion blame.

It is not always possible to publish a report. In February 2000, a relatively new 45m motor cruiser sank in the Caribbean while on passage to Havana. The yacht’s Captain issued a mayday message when water started flooding the engine room. Within half an hour the sea, which was calm, was lapping at the main deck. A British Royal Navy destroyer on anti-drug operations was 35 miles from Puerto Rico's capital, San Juan, when it responded to the call and rescued the 11 crew members as they abandoned ship. There were no injuries among the crew who were taken to San Juan in a US Coast Guard cutter. The cause of this incident was not ascertained and it is unlikely the true cause will ever be established, given the great depth of water in which the yacht sank.

There was predictably much curiosity as to the cause of this incident. A likely – but not proven – suspicion is that the yacht’s sea chests were to blame; that they were either corroded and failed or were left compromised through human error (sea chests are used to import seawater into the yacht to cool its engines, generators and air-condition systems and by water makers, which convert sea water into fresh water for use on board).

True or not, one safety warning that reverberated around the marine world as a result is that sea chests are a potential threat to a vessel’s safety if not operated and maintained by fully trained crew. An additional learning was that a well-drilled crew, familiar with emergency evacuation procedures, can get to safety without serious injury.

Learning from loss of life

When outcomes are less favourable, lives can be lost. It is on these occasions that learning from official reports can be most beneficial. The Cayman Registry published an interim report (issued as a flyer to the Large Yacht Industry) following a fatal accident during a bridge transit.

The report describes how, shortly after leaving a marina, a superyacht needed to transit a swing bridge requiring crew to manually fend off by placing fenders between the yacht’s hull and the bridge buttress. While doing so, a crewman was apparently struck by a fixed fender attached to the bridge structure and was pulled overboard. Caught between the bridge and the hull, the man was severely crushed and then fell into the water where he was retrieved by a small passing boat. Unfortunately, the man was pronounced dead shortly afterwards.

The interim report identified notable safety considerations, including the need for proper passage planning to identify risks and put suitable mitigation measures in place. It also highlighted the merits of crew briefings prior to any activity on board, to ensure everyone’s role is clear and understood. The report discussed the availability, visibility and crew deployment of life-saving appliances such as lifebuoys in an emergency. It stressed the importance of good communication in a distress situation, stating, “Although mobile telephones provide an easy way to contact shore-based emergency services, they should only be used for marine incidents after all attempts to raise the appropriate responders by VHF radio (or other GMDSS methods) have been expended or exhausted.”

Docking disaster

In another incident a motor yacht involved in a docking manoeuvre was pivotal in the death of someone ashore. Wind and tidal conditions were benign and procedures were routine, so once four lines had been made fast ashore, a crew member placed the bridge wing controls in the full ahead position as usual and closed the control station. Unfortunately both engines were still running, but in idle mode. The action of putting the controls into the full ahead position engaged the propellers and the yacht surged ahead.

Three mooring points in use on the quay failed and two bystanders were struck by flying debris – one on the legs and the other on the head. Both were rushed to hospital where one underwent reconstructive surgery, but the latter remained in a critical condition and died five days later.

The findings of the report concluded that due to the design of the bridge wing control station, it had indeed been necessary to put the engine controls in the full ahead position before the control station could be closed. In an effort to prevent a repeat of this accident, recommendations were issued relating to the design of bridge wing control stations on yachts, the importance of proper procedural controls for mooring operations and the implementation of safety management systems under the International Safety Management (ISM) code.

It is hoped that crew reading Safety Reports will learn from others’ mistakes, and it is likely they do. After the loss of a yacht to fire at sea, crew are now far more vigilant about cleaning the lint from a vessel’s tumble drier vents (the oversight of which once lead to the loss of a superyacht). There are many lessons to be learned from Safety Reports; wise owners will ensure that crew get time not only to read and learn from them, but that time and resources are allocated to ensure that similar incidents do not happen aboard.