Fatal Accident in Heavy Weather, 2nd March 2000 Johann Schulte

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While looking into the phenomenon of the ‘shuddering’ of ships I stumbled on this story. Apart from the violent shudder it is about the perils of the sea and human failure. It is unbelievable that crew members, in severe weather circumstances, are going to check the anchors and also not informing the master and the OOW about this.

It was reported that the vessel was struck by two waves at the time of the incident causing serious injuries to crew members and two deaths.

I sailed once on a small tanker which carried all kind of expensive oils such as sewing machine oil (!) but also stuff like tallow that had to be heated by steam piping in the cargo tanks. For that was a special steam plant on board which also fed the anchor winches. You could always tell when we were nearing the pilot station as when the steam was put on the winches this fact was announced by very loud explosive bangs of the expanding cold steam pipes along the deck.

As there was no remote temperature measuring system the temperature of each tank had to be measured manually. It had to be done every six hours. There were special ullage holes which gave excess to a long rope hanging down in the tank’s contents and to which three thermometers were attached at different heights. The whole rope had to be hoisted by hand and the temperatures were written down. It was a messy two man’s job. Not all tanks had to be monitored in this complex way as some tanks were loaded with oil that did not need warming all the time. Compare that to the remote sensors we have these days, which we can also feed into a control system that would monitor and regulate the temperatures automatically. As the ship had a very small free board, 0.98 m, the waves had easy access to the deck, even under moderate weather situations. Ullaging went on even during stormy weather conditions, although sometimes then the ship was turned into the wind and waves to prevent accidents but not always as is shown.

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Not a full blown storm, but as the ship is fully loaded it sits deep in the water and is an easy target for bigger waves. I had to climb into the mast on the accommodation aft to take the left above picture.

We used to call the ship a surface submarine. In heavy weather it was some kind of sport to time your sprint from the amidships to the mess room aft so that you arrived dry and not soaking wet, which often occurred. Anyway that was the case for the first table setting. The captain, not built for these sprinting exercises, always had the ship’s head turned into the wind and waves especially for him so that he could walk over safely and dry to the second table setting in the mess room. The advantage of rank!

Note that in the lower left picture the chief officer, with swimming vest, is taking ullages while standing in the swirling sea water, risking his life for the cargo’s welfare as was shown moments later when he was swept through the piping and all kinds of obstacles underneath the catwalk and on deck ending up at the starboard railing what saved him. More or less the same situation as on board the Johann Schulte. He had insisted on doing the ullaging, normally it was done by one of the younger officers because of the dangers involved. He was rescued by crew members who secured a line round his waist.

The rather badly wounded chief officer, after being saved from the deck, accused the captain of bad seamanship and intentional murder as it was quite foolish to send anybody out on the deck during such weather conditions. As it turned out he had refused to go out on the deck, but the captain insisted on the ullaging anyway. The enraged ‘Chief’ physically attacked the captain when the latter still denied any responsibility for the incident as ‘these things happen’ and had to be controlled by the other present officers. The incident, which should have normally been entered into the ship’s log, was covered up in mutual agreement. The captain probably realized that he had endangered his bonus and the first officer, no matter what the reason could have been, should not have attacked the captain, which was considered a serious act then. At least he would have been promoted to captain years later than planned. So the system had conquered again! In my opinion the captain took a very big risk by not mentioning the incidents in the ship’s log. This was not an uncommon practice as I have seen it happen again on two more occasions on other ships. One captain, who had the misfortune that this fact became known, was relieved of his command on arrival at the next port.

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There was a similar incident on a cable ship, it was after I got off.

Heavy ship anchors are used at sometimes to anchor the undersea cable so we had half a dozen aboard lashed down on the bow.

I ran into my old watch AB after the incident, he told me three crew had gone forward in bad weather. I don’ t recall the details now but two crew were injured. One was pulled back from outside the rail. Bos’n had to retire because of the injury.

AB was interviewed during the investigation, said they were getting occasional light spray on the bridge but the seas that sweept the crew off the bow was a bigger set.

Those are the nasty, unexpected ones. It can be one wave or even a set of waves. I remember that after this incident that during bad weather ullaging two extra look outs were put on the bridge to scan for these waves. One guy was standby in the wheelhouse to sound the horn as a danger signal when they spotted such babies, clear the deck! The learning process…