This is a translation of an interview with Captain Ruud Behren recently published in the Dutch Nautical Newspaper Transport.
Nautical advisor Ruud Behrend, who sailed as helmsman, captain and sea pilot on all kinds of ships from 1958 to the early 1980s, climbed into the pen about the recent container losses on the high seas, including that of the “Maersk Essen”. According to him, the main cause of the accident is commercial pressure from shipping companies, who press captains to continue sailing even in bad weather and not to adapt course and speed to the circumstances.
Do you speak from your own experience?
No, we never experienced this in my time. But I often notice, in my current position as inspector for the flag state of Barbados, that ship managers mainly chase Eastern European captains. That ship manager only wants one thing, and that is for the ship to keep sailing on schedule. And those captains are very law-abiding, because they are terrified of getting fired. As a result, they sometimes take far too much risk.
What happens to those containers if a ship just keeps sailing during storms and heavy waves?
Such a ship will receive enormous stormy seas. This is also evident from the investigation report on the container loss of the “MSC Zoe” to which I contributed. A wave hits the hull of a ship, climbs upwards and thus becomes twice as high. The water then strikes that container with enormous force. According to experts from the Marin research institute, this can amount to as much as 40 tons per container. This is called green water, to distinguish it from a wave with a foam head. You could say solid water.
Why do you have to slow down and change course?
Because then you get much less counterforce. The captain has to pick up enough speed to keep the ship easy to steer. As far as possible with wind force ten or eleven. You change course about twenty or thirty degrees and let the ship lean against the waves, as it were. Then you ride down that storm until it calms down. In short, lower the ship’s speed and lay to. But that is no longer in the manual. Captains today are under almost constant pressure to meet the sailing schedule.
Does a captain endanger his ship and crew in the same way?
Yes definitely. It is also simply the law: it states that good seamanship requires that a captain must do whatever it takes to protect his ship and crew.
What consequences does a captain risk who contravenes instructions from shore?
That’s very simple: dismissal. Ship operators can choose from hordes of Russians, Ukrainians and Poles with captain’s papers, which, incidentally, is fine. They are eager to get to work, because they can earn much more money at sea than at home. As an inspector for the Barbados flag, I just notice that almost all Eastern European captains are terrified to their boss.
According to a Spanish colleague of yours, Javier Madiedo, the complex loading and unloading process in the port is the main cause of container loss at sea. Who is right?
I think it is a combination. If these containers are indeed not properly secured as a result, sailing too fast increases the risk that they will go overboard in heavy weather.
Could the “MSC Zoe” disaster two years ago have been prevented if that ship had changed speed and course?
Short and sweet: yes. What is surprising is that in the report of the Dutch Safety Board it is nowhere to be found how fast the ship was sailing when it lost all those containers. But AIS data shows that this must have been between fifteen and seventeen knots. That’s hard, with so much violence around you.
You were involved in that investigation. Did you insist that cruising speed should be stated?
Yes, I thought that was important information. Surely you should be able to find in a report like that exactly how fast that ship went and what course it steered? But is not in it.
Have you received an explanation as to why the cruising speed was not stated?
No. And there is another crazy thing. Such a ship has a voice recorder that records the conversation on the bridge between the captain, the helmsman and the helmsman. Just like in the cockpit of an airplane. When we overheard that recording, we only heard howling containers. Those boxes on deck rub against each other in heavy weather. That makes a huge noise. You can compare it to the noise that a tram sometimes makes in a bend, but then two hundred times as bad. Still, it is strange that the voices on the bridge cannot be heard. I have been involved in more studies and normally you can follow the conversation very well, even in bad weather. But here: nothing. I had never experienced that before.