Complete engine failure off Norway’s coast poses important questions about safety and how shipping learns from incidents
Two issues confront marine engineers in the wake of last week’s narrowly averted disaster on Viking Sky.
The first is how a modern ship, built in 2017, can lose all engine power without even suffering a hull breach. Severe weather should not be enough. Fuel can be aerated (like beating an egg) by bouncy weather, but it is unlikely that this would have affected the supply to all four engines. The same can be said for the theory that sea chests coming out of the water during high waves introduced air to engine cooling systems. One engine maybe, but surely not four?
Speculation about water ingress (for example onto electrical systems) and maintenance errors – as Swedish Club reminded us recently, most breakdowns happen after maintenance – seems far-fetched due to the extensive requirements for redundancy on passenger vessels since 2010. The Safe Return to Port regulations require that ship systems including power generation, propulsion and steering – as well as the control and monitoring of these systems – should be arranged so that the vessel can get safely to port even if one area is lost due to fire and/or flooding.
The redundancy requirements of the Safe Return to Port regulations should mean that an electrical outage or maintenance fault in one area should not lead to a total blackout. Assuming this modern ship built by one of the most reputable shipbuilders in the sector (Fincantieri) was compliant, questions may be asked whether the regulations are broad enough.
There are already concerns that Safe Return to Port is not robust in every circumstance. For example, redundancy is only required up to the point that one watertight room is flooded – a threshold which could easily be exceeded if the hull was damaged. If there is a chance that tighter regulation could have prevented Viking Sky from losing power, it seems likely that there will be political pressure to revisit the rulebook.
The second issue is about learning from what happened on Viking Sky. Over the past couple of months Marine Propulsion has documented how shipping is already missing learning opportunities through the misclassification of incidents to avoid the difficulties of insuring against faulty design of equipment. There is another issue that hinders safety learning even more.
Speaking at a press briefing in London last week, DNV GL chief executive – maritime Knut Ørbeck-Nilssen highlighted several steps to improving safety, including data sharing and transparency. He noted that the industry sometimes seems reluctant to share learnings from incidents, in some cases taking more than two years to publish reports. Often the IMO has no access to these reports even when they are published.
Without these reports, how can the industry know whether regulation needs to be tightened in specific areas? In the complex case of Viking Sky, and many others like it, we cannot guess at causes. And if we do, can we be surprised if safety regulations turn out to be ineffective? For the sake of saving lives at sea, the industry must adjust its attitude to learning as well as its regulations.