The report into the loss of the bulker Wakashio, which stranded and broke up on the shores of Mauritius in July 2020, has finally been made public by the Panamanian authorities. There are few surprises in this report, the main findings having been earlier made available to the IMO, which was justifiably concerned at the devastation caused to the pristine foreshore by the ship’s spilled bunkers.It is one of those accidents which might be considered inexcusable. She was a modern, well-equipped ship, operated by a famous Japanese line and managed by one of the most reputable ship managers. Her stranding caused considerable environmental harm, cost the senior officers their liberty, everyone concerned their reputation and the subsequent removal of the wreck and the clean-up, enormous expense. There was just no reasonable excuse for such an occurrence and probably not a lot to be learned from a professional point of view, from the analysis of the events.

And yet…. The loss of the Wakashio might be considered an accident of its time, that just would not have occurred in another era. What was the ship, which should have passed the coast of Mauritius well clear, doing so close in the first place? The answer is clear enough – they closed the land so that they could get a signal on their mobile phones, so that the crew could speak to their nearest and dearest. The date is significant, too, with Covid raging around the world, no shore leave or reliefs and society in general expecting (if they ever even thought about seafarers for a second) shipping to keep world trade and the stuff they all needed, flowing. Crews were expected to work months beyond their contracted tour lengths, with no expectation of any change in their circumstances and additional and cumulative concerns about how their families were faring in the pandemic far away.

The chance of a telephone conversation as the vessel skirted the coasts of Mauritius was something that clearly assumed a lot of importance for this small isolated group of people. There was a birthday on board and some effort to cheer up their unenviable circumstances. The Panamanian report makes clear all the various things that went badly wrong before the ship came to grief. There was a lack of vigilance, with the watch officer apparently distracted by his phone and unsupported, forgetting the master’s order regarding the closest approach to land. The chart was the wrong scale and it appeared that everybody who could have supported the navigation was otherwise occupied. It was in short, a navigational shambles.

You might say that there was a complete dereliction of duty and you would probably be correct, in an accident which just would not have happened in another age, before personal communications became so important to us all. Most people ashore would be appalled at the prospect of being parted from their mobile devices for weeks on end, and the modern seafarer, although having to put up with such isolation, clearly feels the isolation keenly.

In earnest discussions about future labour shortages and how recruitment and retention can be encouraged, it is clear that communications with nearest and dearest, in distant memory confined to snail mail and the agent’s boat, have become entrenched as essential human rights. Any survey of seafarer attitudes will confirm the importance of communications with employers being effectively rated by their provision of communication access. And seafarers jolly well know, as they sit aboard ships which are wired up for instant data transmission, that the technology is eminently available to keep them in touch, at a reasonable cost.

It might be suggested that this accident was not the first contributed to by the distractions ofcommunication and will not be the last. There is
something about novelty in the maritime world that will inevitably contribute to accidents, which just would not have happened had they not been
available. The “radar assisted” collision, misunderstandings caused by VHF, AIS, GPS – now mobile distraction, its just the latest addition to the technological armoury which will briefly take our attention, until it is replaced by something else.

Artificial intelligence – navigation advised by Alexa – who knows what delights are to come?

Source: Michael Grey, The Maritime Advocate