It was an ordinary day on August 9th when it was announced in the news that two cargo ships, MSC Chitra and Khalijia III had collided just in front of Mumbai harbor and that one of them was sinking. When MSC Chitra sank, or rather, was beached on Prong Reef, she started leaking out heavy fuel oil (HFO). Official estimates was that around 800 tons leaked out in Mumbai waters and about 500 containers had fallen into the sea.
MSC Chitra (picture courtesy of www.today24news.com)
Reports states that MSC Chitra was on the way out of Mumbai harbor enroute to Gujarat while the Khalijia III was on anchorage and was on the way into the harbor. I have not seen any diagrams of how the collision has taken place but first impression is that this accident could have been avoided with better lookout.
All the colors of the rainbow at Belapur
We could also see the effect of the accident very clearly in our smeared water line and dirty tenderboat as well as the floating lumps of congealed HFO that come by with the currents. Worst with HFO is that it comes off with great difficulty and we have to brush off our tender every night. While Media was talking about the oil slick that was nearing Elephanta and posing a risk to the mangroves it was already there. The Authorities did nothing except talk a lot at first, it seemed no oil spill contingency plan had been made. Then the traffic was closed to Mumbai port and the Indian Navy was called upon to spray dispersant that makes the HFO sink to the bottom of the sea. After that International salvers were called but as it seems the closest Salver was in Singapore it'll take some time before they can arrive to the scene.
HFO pollution on shores
Some days later even the Belapur jetty was black with HFO and cookie packets from containers floated to the shores that local people opened for the stray dogs to eat. Authorities advised fishermen not to catch fish, still I watched people venturing out to ea every morning for fishing. It is hard when it is your only livelihood. I wonder if they managed to sell their catch at all.
Stranded cookie packets from containers
We also saw at times (and reported to the VTS) containers floating by our anchorage position. While tendering ashore there is still one container stranded in the mangroves. News reports that some of these containers carry some very hazardous chemicals inside them.
Acquaintances told me that the Marine drive was also littered with big splotches of HFO as well as the mangrove at Colaba near the Navy area seems to be totally gone black from HFO. At least here in Belapur area I have not seen any anti-pollution measures taken. I suppose there are no equipment for this kind of incidents. The response from the Authorities has been inadequate, one only has to wonder what would happen if an oil spill of the BP magnitude would happen at the Indian coast?
Soon after the accident the blame game started, the pilots were blamed on leaving the vessel too early at Middle Ground, the vessel traffic management system (VTS) was blamed on not monitoring the traffic, the ships blamed they had been on different radio channels and each other, the crew blamed the port officials, politicians started pointing at each other and so on.
The fact remains that a collision happened in fair weather during broad daylight that lead to a minor environmental disaster.
My opinon of current affairs would be:
- The pilot leaving the ship earlier is a normal praxis in most ports when the seaconditions are bad and in Mumbai the swell is quite high. From Middle ground there is only one pair of buoys (visible by eye) to be passed and after that any course can be taken (depending on your destination), any navigator can master this task, it is like driving to the next lights and take a turn. I'm sure the pilot advised the Captain where to proceed and also the current traffic in the vicinity. If the Master agreed to let the pilot disembark it was his decision as he could have expressed his inexperience in the area and ask the pilot to stay until port limits. Anyway, legally pilots are not responsible of the ships they pilot, they just give advice and while most Masters let the pilots take their ships in/ out of ports they are always in the end responsible for what the pilot does. Hence the Master/ Officer on duty should always double check the orders and decisions taken by the pilot as per good seamanship;
- While the VTS is tasked on monitoring the traffic they are not responsible for individual vessels movements, they can advise of dangers though and it is the Master's task to navigate as per the Rules of the Road (COLREG's). My experience of Mumbai VTS is that they are far too stretched to be able to effectively monitor everything that happens in Mumbai port. Even here the legal aspect falls on the Master, the VTS is just a tool for him;
- My question is that what did the Master/ Officer on watch do on both vessels? It was daylight and fair weather, no rain and good visibility as well as plenty of deep water to move around in. In such coastal navigation areas I'm sure that the both vessels Insternational Safety Management Systems (ISM) stipulated that the bridge manning should have consisted at least of the Master, Officer of the Watch, lookout and helmsman. Did none of these 8 pairs of eyes realize there was a close quarter situation developing? I'm sure the accident reports that will be filed by both Masters must be nothing short of an award in science fiction;
- Media had a field day on the fact that both vessels were on different radio channels and could not communicate with each other. I am and have always been against this kind of radio navigation as one can never be sure what is being said and with whom. Furthermore the COLREG's gives clear rules of the road, who has "right of way" and who is the "give away vessel" in various situations. COLREG's even stipulate that in the event that it seems the "give away vessel" is not taking evasive action the "right of way vessel" is then obligated to do so. Some might argue about what is the distance to 2 vessels when this regulation comes into force and in my opinion it depends on the size of the vessel. The bigger the vessel, the longer the distance, as one has to judge the "point of no return" when the other and your own vessel is not able to avoid a collision whatever measures are taken. If I would be the OOW or Master I would never like to be that close. In the end the radio channel has no effect on the navigation whatsoever as they do not steer the ship, the man in command does it. Legally they will be blamed for this neglect though, as they should have been in radio contact as has been judged in many courts regarding several collision incidents;
- Media put some notice that MSC Chitra had Port State deficiencies but it was not detained in New Zealand and Australia earlier. As per Equasis she has been having Port State issues since 1998 (or even earlier) but only once in 1998 was she detained in Italy. Same fact also applies to Khalijia III, she has also been having Port State deficiencies since 1999 (or even earlier) and she has been detained twice once in 2001 in Italy and once in 2007 in India. MSC Chitra was built in 1980 and Khalijia in 1985 so even the age points to the fact that these both ships are approaching the end of their service life;
- Whatever the condition of the ships it has not been reported it was a technical failure so my only million dollar question remains: What were the personnel doing on the bridge if not looking out of the window to monitor the close quarter situation developing?
The sun still shines on Mumbai
In the end I'm guessing both Companies will be implicated and an arbiter will assess who had more fault than the other and the salvage and oil spill damages will be split on a ratio, perhaps 70/30 or along those lines. The public media will forget this issue when a new scandal or catastrophy emerges and life will go on...
Below are links to news articles about the issue: