Ships and Seafarers (Safety)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:00 am on 25th June 2002.

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Photo of Brian Iddon Brian Iddon Labour, Bolton South East 11:00 am, 25th June 2002

This debate is about the safety of ships and mariners at sea, which is a topic that the House has not debated for several years. In particular, my contribution will be about the sinking of the MV Derbyshire in 1980, with the loss of 44 lives, including the wives of two officers. The story of the Derbyshire is incredible, and I can only scratch the surface this morning.

Hon. Members may wonder why on earth a Member who represents an inland constituency should take such an interest in the sea. The truth is that I have been fascinated by the sea all my life. I was born close to it and went to secondary school in the seaside resort of Southport. My fascination with ships began on my many visits with my father to Liverpool in my formative years. I am old enough to remember the joy of riding on the overhead railway, long since demolished, along the dock road, to look at all the mighty ships that sailed the seven seas.

The Derbyshire sank during Typhoon Orchid. No SOS was received: only oil rising to the surface identified that the ship had sunk and located its approximate position at the time. The families heard about the loss mainly through media reports, which made their grief even worse. MV Derbyshire was a single screw ore-bulk-oil combination carrier, one of six sister ships. An OBO is a design of ship that was popular in the mid-1960s, because such ships were adaptable to carrying oil or bulk cargos such as iron ore, which the Derbyshire was carrying from Canada to Japan.

The MV Derbyshire was registered at Liverpool and, at the time, was the largest ship ever built: it was twice the size of the Titanic. In length she measured 294.1 metres and, in extreme breadth, 44.28 metres. If stood on end, the ship was 60 metres taller than Canary Wharf, and had nine holds or tanks and nine hatches. She was built by Swan Hunter on the River Tees, and handed over to Bibby Tankers in Hamburg on 10 June 1976. MV Derbyshire was managed from that point until her loss by Bibby's. She was classed by Lloyd's Register of Shipping in London as a

"+100 Al strengthened for ore cargoes; holds 2 and 6 may be empty or oil cargoes".

Since the tragic loss of the MV Derbyshire, bulk carriers have been sinking at a rate of one a month. From the loss of the Derbyshire in 1980 to August 1998, 1,632 seafarers lost their lives in bulk carrier incidents alone. The MV Derbyshire Family Association was established following the loss of the ship and sought to persuade the then Government to investigate its loss and the loss of loved ones. The Government declined, citing the technological difficulties of examining the wreck at a depth of two and a half miles below sea level.

I want to pay tribute to the DFA and its members for their persistence. I have worked with them since my election to Parliament in 1997, and have been impressed by their work. Their primary aim has been to use the loss of the Derbyshire to improve the safety of all those who sail at sea in OBOs. Several right hon. and hon. Members have promoted their cause in this House, and I pay tribute to them. Some of them have been elevated to the other place. My hon. Friend Mr. O'Hara has been applying for this debate for several weeks, and last week I promised to give him assistance as a member of the all-party parliamentary group on the MV Derbyshire. Unfortunately, he is away in Strasbourg this week and is devastated that he cannot be with us today.

A draft Government report, published in 1985, concluded that the most likely cause of the loss of the Derbyshire was major cracking of frame 65. However, after consultations with Swan Hunter and Lloyd's Register of Shipping—and perhaps others—the draft report was substantially altered. The final version, published in March 1986, listed five possible causes for the loss: explosion, a shift of cargo, failure of the hatches, external hull damage and structural failure.

With the loss of a sister ship, the Kowloon Bridge, in November 1986, a finger of suspicion was again pointed at frame 65. Consequently, a formal investigation was appointed under Mr. Gerald Darling QC, as wreck commissioner, with three assessors. It considered the loss from October 1987 to March 1988. Its report concluded:

"For the reasons stated in this Report the Court finds that the Derbyshire was probably overwhelmed by the forces of nature in Typhoon Orchid, possibly after getting beam on to wind and sea, off Okinawa, in darkness on the night of 9/10 September 1980, with the loss of 44 lives. The evidence available does not support any firmer conclusions".

The families of those who perished were extremely disappointed at such an inconclusive result, and at the allegations of bad seamanship made in the report. The report cast further suspicions on the design features of the Derbyshire, particularly the strength of frame 65, and it was promoted as a cause of the ship's loss in articles in learned journals, by lecturers and in a book on the sinking of the Derbyshire written by Dave Ramwell and Tim Madge, which was published in 1992. The MV Derbyshire Family Association continued to put pressure on the Government for a full inquiry, with support from the International Transport Workers Federation and the maritime unions. In March 1994, the ITF agreed to back a mission to locate the Derbyshire, raising the money independently of the Government. Its part in the story cannot be over-emphasised. It brought in Oceaneering Technologies, and the wreck was located on 8 June 1994.

In a joint UK-EC assessors' report, Lord Donaldson used the results provided by Oceaneering Technologies and recommended that a joint UK Government-EC investigation be carried out in the interests of international ship safety. The deep submergence laboratory of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution of the United States carried out an extensive groundbreaking survey, which at the time was the deepest underwater forensic examination of any wreck. It provided more than 200 hours of video and 135,774 photographs, which located the position of 98 per cent. of the wreckage in 2,500 separate pieces. Through pressure from the MV Derbyshire Family Association, the all-party parliamentary group on the Derbyshire and others, we persuaded the Deputy Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend Mr. Prescott, to reopen the formal inquiry under Mr. Justice Colman. The present Government's role in unearthing the truth surrounding the sinking of the Derbyshire cannot be underestimated.

The inquiry was unique in that it took place in the High Court and was presided over by a senior judge. Tribute must be paid to the inquiry team, who worked with all parties involved to arrive at a definitive conclusion on the loss. From evidence of the condition of the wreck and data derived from model tests, which were conducted by MARIN in the Netherlands, strong inferences were drawn about the cause of the loss. Ventilators and air pipes located on the foredeck and leading down to the bosun's store, machinery space and ballast tank were damaged before sinking commenced in such a way as to admit substantial volumes of seawater to those spaces; the hatch covers were damaged by impact from forward before they collapsed into the holds and before they were subjected to bending on a longitudinal axis; the hull girder had not lost its longitudinal integrity at any time until after sinking had commenced; the bosun's store hatch lid did not admit water to the bosun's store until it was destroyed by impact, probably by some part of the starboard windlass; and the starboard windlass broke loose by reason of hydrodynamic loading, probably after some or all of the ventilators and air pipes to the bosun's store and ballast tank and probably the No.1 hatch covers had already been destroyed and had started to admit seawater, thereby reducing the vessel's freeboard and increasing the exposure of the windlass to weld-cracking waves.

The initiating cause of the loss of the vessel appears to have been the destruction of some or all of the ventilators and air pipes that were located on the foredeck, which led down into the boatswain's store, machinery spaces and ballast tank, and the consequent loss of freeboard at the bow due to the gradual flooding of those forward spaces.

Professor Tawn concluded from that data that the flooding of both the stores and the ballast tank—even the stores alone—could have produced sufficient loss of freeboard to expose hatch cover No.1 to at least one hatch-breaking wave during the typhoon on 9 September 1980. Therefore, hatch cover strength became crucial, not only to the safety of the Derbyshire, but to all similar vessels, many of which are still navigating the oceans today, thus putting hundreds more lives at risk.

The recommendations of the re-hearing of the formal investigation were significant, far-reaching and necessary to protect mariners' lives. Certain issues were highlighted as crucial to the achievement of increased safety at sea—hatch cover strength, permissible freeboard and navigational improvements.

Hatch cover strength applies equally to existing ships as to new ones. However, the problem with existing ships is whether shipowners would consider the fitting of stronger hatch covers to be economically viable. The underlying deck structure may not be strong enough to support heavier covers. That problem could be combated by an increase in either the minimum freeboard level or new covers, or a mixture of both for existing ships, which would allow heightened safety in dangerous waters. There is no excuse for building new ships without strengthening their hatch covers.

The international convention on load lines 1966 governs the weight of cargo stored in the holds of all bulk carriers worldwide. Justice Colman's inquiry concluded that:

"it provides for a level of protection substantially too low by reference to modern safety standards".

The RFI report recommends that that be changed and be

"applicable at least to all existing bulk carriers" and that they should

"more than comply with the ILLC 66 regulations for minimum hatch cover strength".

An article in the T2 section of The Times on 22 April 2002 entitled "Coffins of the High Seas" focused on the Derbyshire and the general safety of bulk carriers. A spokesman for the National Union of Marine, Aviation and Shipping Transport Officers was quoted as saying that the commercial life of those vessels is

"15 years maximum, but many of the vessels still working are more than 20 years old and the incidence of loss increases dramatically after 11 years."

That implies that many OBOs are death traps and unfit for service. That implication is reinforced by the sentiments expressed in the article's conclusion by Paul Lambert of the MV Derbyshire Family Association, whose brother Peter died on the Derbyshire. He suggests that the industry

"has known for 20 years what the problem is", and that

"bulk carriers are not seaworthy."

Paul told me that some OBOs become rust buckets after 15 years, and that beyond that age they should be subjected to much more stringent inspections than younger ships.

The RFI report concludes that the International Maritime Organisation should require the

"compulsory daily reporting of all vessels".

The report also suggests that the mariner's handbook, NP1OO, should be amended as regards navigation in the dangerous semicircle of a tropical revolving storm, to include the possibility of running with the wind on the port quarter in certain circumstances. Masters should be made aware of the potential dangers of water entry into forward spaces and the resulting loss of freeboard.

According to the report, an increased participation by vessels in the World Meteorological Organisation's voluntary observing ships scheme should be encouraged by a British maritime notice and an IMO circular. Weather routing agencies should make clear to masters the precise circumstances in which positive routing advice will be given to vessels during voyages. Those navigational improvements will enable the safer passage of vessels through the most dangerous seas. Many additional features in the report place obligations on the International Association of Classification Societies, the IMO and the Department for Transport, which should co-operate as necessary. Those features are aimed at ensuring the implementation of the improved safety standards set out in Mr. Justice Colman's report. The report recommends that IACS set up research programmes to investigate the establishment of a

"minimum strength requirement for and, if necessary, location and protection requirements for ventilators and air pipe fittings on deck".

It also recommends that chain locker access be through bolted manholes, not doors; that foredeck hatch cover displacements be monitored, preferably using camera surveillance on the foredeck; that deck fittings be secured; that as-built construction plans and plans showing alterations that have been in any dry dock worldwide be kept; and that powerful lighting and industrial video cameras be installed on the foredeck of all Capesize bulk carriers. It also contains recommendations on hatch-cover operating manuals, and recommends that the pumping system to deal with forward-space flooding be independent of the main pumps and be capable of running dry without damage and handling solid material.

Perhaps the two most important recommendations are that a marine accident database be established comprehensively to record storm damage incidents, and that all new ships be fitted with voyage data recorders, which are similar to the black box recorders that have always been fitted to aircraft. It is recommended that VDRs be retrofitted to existing ships, and the IMO is carrying out a feasibility study on retrofitting VDRs to existing bulk carriers, although it is not expected to report until January 2004.

In its 74th session last year, the IMO's maritime safety committee reported that some progress was being made. The committee was updated on the formal safety assessments that member organisations were carrying out on bulk carrier safety.