The Viking Sky drama - didn't we learn anything from Titanic?
This weekend, the cruise ship Viking Sky - with around 1000 passengers (plus around 300 crew) - had a close call when they experienced an engine breakdown. They managed to get the engines working again, but while doing so they were only 100 meters away from the rocks. The ship has a draft of 6.5 meters, the waves were many meters high, and on the closest the water depth was like 10 meters deep - so the ship was very close to wrecking (see AIS tracks at the bottom of the post). Such a class of ship crashing with the rocks in such a rough weather and with such waves would for sure cause quite a lot of casualties, I'd roughly estimate ~600.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons (source), Christian Ferrer, CC-BY
They were passing an area well-known for being dangerous due to chaotic wave patterns, in a storm. With such a ship it's normally more or less like a walk in the park. Due to the stabilizers the passengers can drink champagne from champagne glasses without having to worry about the weather. The only caveat - those stabilizers requires the ship to have some speed through the water or they just won't work. But hey, the engines will always work. Just like Titanic was considered unsinkable with the hull being divided in many watertight compartments, Viking Sky should never ever lose the propulsion due to redundancy at all levels in the propulsion systems. And yet, just like Titanic managed to break too many hull compartments when crashing with the ice berg, this time something caused too many of the engines of Viking Sky to fail, causing the ship to be unable to keep up against the wind.
One video clip has been circulated by the media, showing how furniture was thrown around and even ceiling panels was falling down as the ship rolled with as much as 30 degrees. Hey, where did my champagne glass go?
I was quite surprised seing the video, it's so much WTF. Shouldn't the furniture in a ship be fixed or secured before going in rough weather? Interior (like the ceiling panels) should be designed to hold even if the ship is listing or rolling heavily.
Titanic didn't have enough life boats, because they never considered it would be needed to evacuate the ship. Viking Sky did have enough life boats - but in such a bad weather, lifeboats were of no use. The local SAR-boats went out, but returned because the weather was too bad (I've never heard that happening before!) Further, even though several tug boats came to aid, they weren't able to provide any help because the weather was too rough to transfer a towing line. Eventually, they managed to rescue people by helicopters, but only one passenger at the time - with 1300 passengers to go, and 15 persons capacity in each helicopter. Probably it would take more than 24 hours to rescue everyone by helicopter. (I can't understand how that's possible to evacuate people by helicopter when the ship is rolling that much. A nearby timber transporter also got into an emergency situation, the crew couldn't be rescued by helicopter from the ship itself, they had to jump into the water and get picked up from the water. I guess they started the evacuation only after the crew managed to get the engines working again, so the ship could have some speed through the water and hence stop the rolling)
The rescue services are covering this area very well, but nowadays cruisers routinely visit the north part of Svalbard/Spitsbergen, the remote south of Argentina and Chile, Antarctica, Greenland, etc - in many of those places the weather can be unpredictably rough. There was an incident with a fishing vessel crashing with land at the north side of Svalbard earlier this winter - in complete darkness 24/7, only ice and polar bears around. It was just within the operating range of rescue choppers from Longyearbyen. In that incident too, there were no causalities - with the rescue services operating absolutely at the boundary of the possible. The coastal services even managed to get out there some days later, empty the ship for all it's bunker oil and even removing all plastic on board to prevent environmental harm - but it's merely luck that it went all good.
In retroperspective most of us will probably agree on that Titanic should have left harbour with sufficient life boat capacity for all passengers and crew - but if a ship leaves a harbour in such a weather that the life boats are of no use, is it any better than leaving from the harbour without any life boats at all? From this logic it seems obvious the ship should have stayed in port waiting for calmer weather.
Since Titanic sunk, there has been strong regulation on shipping safety - there should always be sufficient lifeboats to evacuate all the passengers, even if a ship is "unsinkable". I hope the shipping industry will learn from this incident - like, even if the boat is "unrollable", the interior should be designed to withstand rolling. Even if the machinery is "unstoppable", one should always consider the possibility that it will fail - and if the weather is too rough for lifeboats to be of any use, then don't leave the harbour, even if the ship usually has no problems with such weather!
AIS tracks from MarineTraffic, via Kriftian at baatplassen.no
(This section has been added to the post after publishing, based on criticism from the Norwegian boating forum, baatplassen.no)
- The answer to the question in the title of the post is of course "yes - we did learn a lot from Titanic"!
- There was quite some other shipping activity in the same area and same time, following my logic "if the weather is too rough for lifeboats to be of any use, don't go out" those ships should also have stayed in port. Still, there is a significant difference between having more than a thousand of people on board and having a small trained crew. There was a timber cargo ship getting into trouble. The ship survived, they got the anchor out in time, but the cargo had tilted to one side of the boat, causing extreme listing. The crew decided to evacuate - by jumping in the water and get picked up by a helicopter. Not trivial, but it was possible. For the cruise ship it wasn't possible. So, the other traffic was permittable if we change the logic into "if there aren't any evacuation possibilities, don't go out".
- Following my logic "if the weather is too rough for lifeboats to be of any use, don't go out", intercontintental shipping would be pretty difficult. Then again, the number of casualties in international professional shipping is relatively low compared to the benefit it gives humanity, so I guess it's OK anyway. Then again, the potential consequences of losing engine power while being in a storm in the middle of the Pacific is probably less bad than when being outside Hustadvika. Not only that it's close to dangerous rocks and land, but it's also an area with hazardous and chaotic waves. Probably it's possible to use the life boats in much worse weather in the Pacific compared to at Hustadvika.
- There is no such thing as absolute safety, I'm a strong beliver of having a rational approach to "risk management". Think of aviation, it's relatively safe even if there are no escape possibilities should both engines fail on a regular commercial flight. This was one hour of rough conditions on a longer journey (the rest of the journey would be in shelter behind islands), and the probability of such a blackout was considered to be extremely low.
- Would the number of casualties really have been that high if the ship would have been hitting the rocks? Perhaps not, unlike MS Estonia the sea depth in Hustadvika wouldn't be that bad compared to the size of the ship. The full ship would not be submerged. However, the landing would most likely be very rough, many people would be injured and probably unable to climb to "higher ground". The ship would probably end up on its side, causing bigger parts of the ship to be below the water line and making it more difficult to climb. I still believe there would be casualties, but perhaps the number would be within two digits rather than three. Costa Concordia is probably a more relevant accident to compare with, although it was a quite different accident - it did hit the rock with a great speed, the water depth was probably slightly deeper, the weather was quite OK - some people even evacuated the scene by swimming to land. Costa Concordia had 4252 people on board, 32 casualties and 64 injuries.