Gregg Farmer Maritime Safety Blog
Marine Navigation Safety harbor pilot
The Helsinki Bridge broke free from Conley terminal in South Boston on December 6, 2017. How does something like this happen? Who is responsible for the ship, the dock and pilotage? What were the weather conditions? What safety precautions were taken?
Accidents like this do occur but they are not frequent. I have sailed on ships as master and pilot that have experienced a parted mooring line or two, but I have never experienced breaking away from a dock. Mooring lines do fail when they exceed their breaking strength. Dock bollards fail when the pull exceeds the rating of the bollard. These single events or combination of both can result in a ship breaking away from the dock. Weather has an exponential impact on the ship and dock mooring systems i.e. ship lines and dock bollards. The Helsinki Bridge is a New Panamax container ship and is much larger and has more sail area (sail area is the structure of a ship that is exposed to wind) than the container ships that have traditionally called on Conley Terminal in South Boston. The marine weather forecast for Boston harbor advised gale force winds. The National Weather Service in Taunton reported wind gusts up to 46KTS out of the south at Logan airport. A ship moored at Conley Terminal will experience the full force of southerly winds trying to push the ship off the dock.
The Helsinki Bridge came off the dock because of the wind weather. Could or should there have been other assets in play to prevent the accident? From the reports I have read and those I have spoken with there were no tugs standing buy pushing on the ship to keep her moored at the terminal. One may ask why there were no tugs pushing on the ship. I can only tell you from my experience as a Master and a Commissioned pilot how I make decisions. The Master is ultimately responsible for the safety of the ship and its crew. The Master is required to hire and use a pilot commissioned by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. As Master I rely on the pilot for their vast knowledge of local weather, tide and currents for advice on ordering tugs to standby. As a commissioned pilot I relay my experience and what to expect during a port stay to the master as part of my master/pilot exchange of information before heading into port. The commissioned pilot has a duty to represent the public interest in moving commerce safely on the waters of Boston Harbor. I offer the master any help they require in obtaining tugs. I make sure the master understands any unusual weather being reported and how to get a hold of a commissioned pilot if needed. I make sure the master knows that Boston does not have tugs available on a moment’s notice.
The USCG is investigating this incident. The Pilot Commissioners should be as well. Did the Master of the Helsinki Bridge have all the information he needed to make a prudent decision before entering port and stay safely moored to the terminal? Did he know how to contact tugs and a Commissioned pilot if he needed them? Were the tugs available? Was there a commissioned pilot in the office available because of the threat of high winds? I can speak for myself that when I am on the pilot board for work I would be in or very near the office during a weather event such as this. This is not the case with all of the commissioned pilots some live more than an hour away from the office while on the working board do not follow this safety measure. When an LNG is in port the commissioned pilots are compensated and are supposed to be available on short notice.
When a ship breaks away from a dock the crew may or may not have enough time to get the ships engines ready for maneuver. I have no knowledge if they did. The ship did travel across the Reserved channel and strike the Black Falcon Terminal dock 600 feet away from its mooring causing damage to both the dock and the ship. If another ship were moored at Black Falcon things would have been much worse. Tugs arrived on scene at some point and a Docking master boarded the ship. A Commissioned Massachusetts pilot should have been on the ship according to state law. I cannot confirm there was a state Commissioned pilot on the ship, but I do know a Docking master was onboard till the ship was safely anchored at sea. The Docking master acted in the best interest of the Port of Boston.
These ships are much larger than what the piers and channel are designed for. Improvements are being made but are not completed. If the cruise ship season was in full swing greater losses could have occurred. If the tugs were not able to respond a serious grounding could have occurred along any part of the waterfront including the airport. One airport runway is very close to the container terminal. As the channel deepens to allow these New Panamax vessels to come in with drafts reaching 50feet the challenges of navigating and moving commerce safely become greater. The width of the Reserved channel is permanently fixed. Any conditions less than ideal increase navigational and safety challenges. Wind and current speed impact these large vessels much more than the ships that were navigating Boston when these channels were originally designed.
What can be done to improve the situation for these vessels? Make sure the mooring arraignment is adequate to provide bollards that will not fail and mooring line leads that allow breast leads. Tugs that are available for immediate dispatch during periods of challenging weather. Many foreign ship masters are reluctant to order tugs because it is discouraged by the ship owner. The Pilot on turn should be in the pilot office. Many of the Commissioned pilots live an hour or more away from Boston. A pilot can assist the Master in a way that he/she will not draw criticism from the owners if tugs are ordered for standby. Massport usually stops cargo operations during periods of high winds and should continue to do so.
I will add to this blog when we learn more.