Inadvertent Black Outs

In reading about the recent problems the Viking Sky had me thinking about the plant black outs I have experienced. Some were due to mechanical or electrical issues and a few were inadvertent, i.e. human error.

One comes to mind as I was the human error. We were changing over generators. Something that I have done hundreds of times. On this particular occasion, with the load shifted over I put my hand on the online generator breaker switch and with a flip of my wrist the lights went out. I know I meant to be checking that the off line generators breaker had tripped but that is not what I did. I remember as if in slow motion the 1st standing next to me trying to reach over to stop me saying N-o-o-o-o but it was too late. Fortunately we recovered quickly but the brief three ring circus could have been avoided if I had just taken a step back for moment. My bad and needless to say very embarrassing on my part. Only happened once and that was more than enough.


The scenario you described happened to the best of 'em (& to those of us who aren’t the best too). It happened to me a long time ago but my hands still reflexively go into my pockets whenever I’m working on the main switchboard. Not all old habits are bad ones I guess?


Just a few years ago in the U.S. fleet there was the mother of all black-outs, at sea, underway when everything lost starting with one SSDG and ending with the GMDSS batteries going dead after 24 hrs or so with no starting air, ship drifting.

100% human error, nothing wrong with any equipment except contaminated fuel in the EDG tank which technically was human error as well.

Only once? I wish I could say that with a straight face.


This happened on one of the company’s new ships that had only been in service a short while. I attended the ship on unrelated matters a day or so after the incident and was told the story. While headed for Hong Kong the smoke alarm went off one afternoon. It was caused by one of the mates inadvertently setting off a flare in his stateroom. He was going to give a talk on flares during the fire & boat drill that afternoon. While rehearsing his presentation he lit the flare (method actor?). If the smoke alarm panel is not acknowledged after so many minutes the general alarm goes off. The smoke/fire alarm panel is not on the bridge. It is located in the cargo/ballast control office on the 01 level (if I remember correctly). After timing out the general alarm sounds. Smoke is filling the passageway on the mate’s deck (from the flare). The general alarm bells continue to ring which on the bridge becomes deafening. The captain starts hitting every red button on the console in hopes of acknowledging the alarm to stop the general alarm bells. One of those buttons was the Engine Room Ventilation (in case of fire). This shut down the engine room ventilation alright along with the main engine and generator fuel pumps. All power was lost and the lights went out.

There were obviously a host of lessons to be learned after this incident starting with shipboard familiarization…The mate that lit the flare got fired.


On an AHTS on the way back from the field with everybody limbering up for a night on the town, accommodation redolent with aftershave and everything went dark and quiet. There was no emergency generator back in the day and both air receivers were empty as two generators had an argument over who was supposed to be running the show. It was more than a couple of summers ago and I can’t remember all the technical details as I was only the mate but we did find out the hard way that the hand pump to pump up the air was crap.
Finally a CO2 fire extinguisher was attached to the air start motor on one of the three generators and power was restored.
Made the base long after everything was closed but probably feeling healthier than we would have been.


Kind of makes you wonder if the Emergency Generator was actually run 2 hours a month. My counterpart would duly log its running every month when he was aboard. I never really thought about it until I installed hour run meters on equipment that didn’t have them. One was the Emergency Generator. It was only then I noticed the runtime hadn’t changed from the last time I ran the engines. I thought he knew better…


Same happened on a steam Ro-Ro with a control room console on centerline with windows that faced aft. The generators were in-line fore and aft on the port side with controls mounted flat on the panel athwartships. Flick of the wrist is all it took.


More than should have happened.
Had the generator high coolant temps auto-shutdown deal happen several times: typically due to airlock from a recent coolant change, or a new install.
The most worrisome was water contamination in the daytank: it takes a while to bleed all the lines. Thank goodness for a low bleed off valve on the daytank itself. Fortunately, of the 2generators o/b, one started by battery.

I’ve had it happen to me personally and have had my engines do it. Human error is easier to explain to ABS or coast guard so I’ll take it over mechanical error

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The first company I sailed for had several vessels contracted to a couple of oil companies and contractors for seismic work. One was a Texaco Lab contract that worked 10 days out and 4 in to the same dock.
The seismic crew complained of electrical noise on the records on each air gun blast. This went on for a couple of hitches. On my watch, I was servicing one generator. I dropped a fuel filter and it rolled to the back of the switchboard. As I picked it up, the air guns were fired and I noticed arcing on the buss in the switchboard. I notified the CE. The CE assured the Texaco Party Chief he could tighten the buss without shutting down the operation.
The Chief glued a socket to a fiberglass rod. After an hour or so, me, the CE and the Party Chief were in the cage behind the switchboard. Very cramped. The Chief tightened the buss nut and the arcing ceased. He decided to do one more turn…The socket broke off and shorted the next buss below. It was amazing how 3 fat guys managed to escape the lightning bolt! The half of the buss that stayed on line carried the steering system luckily.
As I’ve said before, my guardian angel walks with a limp…


I signed on as engineer on an old coast guard cutter that an “eccentric” billionaire had bought as a toy. When I came on board, the ship was under arrest after a fuel transfer accident, and there was nobody to do any kind of handover.

The ER was enormously complicated, in an in-between state of modernization. There was primary 380V gen and one 110VDC gen in the ER plus one air cooled 380V gen in the forepeak. Most of the equipment was 110VDC, and the DC bus was normally energized off a transformer, but certain loads (like the windlass) required me to start the DC gen. The primary main engine coolant circulation pump was run of the AC bus, and the backup was run off the DC bus (DUN DUN DUN!).

I got one day of familiarization before we put to sea. Everything went all right for the first day or so, then I was woken up by sirens in the dead of night. The primary AC gen had shut down due to overheating. I started the DC gen, switched over, ran up one level to re-start the steering gear pump, and breathed a sigh of relief. In order to bring the rest of the AC equipment on-line, I switched over to the emergency gen in the forepeak, and figured I’d get two hours of sleep while the primary gen cooled off.

I got woken up from the sound of sirens, ran to the ER, started the primary gen, ran up one level for the load transfer, re-started the steering gear pump, reported all systems operational to the bridge. I diagnosed the problem as air locked day tank lift pump in the forepeak (should have checked that, but what can you do in one day of familiarization?), fixed that, went back to the ER, found the primary generator temperature climbing unchecked, and transferred load back to the emergency gen. Phew. I wasn’t immediately able to diagnose the overheating, so figured we’d run on the emergency gen for the 40-odd hours into port, and went back to sleep.

I got woken up from the sound of sirens. The sea state had worsened significantly, and the emergency generator had shut down due to a fire in the forepeak. I sprinted to the ER, transferred load to the DC gen, re-started the steering gear pump, reported the situation to the bridge, and fought the fire. It wasn’t too bad, just a grease fire that started because the emergency generator starting battery had come loose and shorted out on the bulkhead. Unbeknownst to me, three things had happened: The coolant pressure alarm switch had calcinated shut (a long time ago), the DC circulation pump fuse had burned out (recently), and the bridge crew had killed the main engine overtemp alarm (while I was fighting the fire).

Thus, when I breathed a sigh of relief and stumbled back to the ER to have another look at the primary generator cooling situation, I was met by a wall of steam. Boiling water entered cylinders 4 and 5 through the head seals and shot out around the injectors with enormous force. I sprinted up to the bridge, told the captain he’d be losing propulsion in 20 seconds, sprinted back down and somehow killed the main without losing all my skin.

You really can’t make this stuff up. I imagine this is what everyday life on the Bob Barker must be like.

Great thread, BTW, keep 'em coming!


Maine Class?

You got it! … nice ships otherwise.

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During rig move in the South China Sea some years ago I called in a AHTS to hook up tow. On approach they suddenly stopped dead in the water. After a few minutes the Capt. called and said; sorry, but we will not be able to do the tow due to engine problems.
While we probed high and low for a replacement boat, he called again and said that they had fixed the problem. I was a bit sceptical so asked them to get under the crane so I could come down for an inspection and more detailed explanation.

The problem had been that when the Captain called the ECR one of the engines had unclutched automatically. They engaged the clutch from the ERC.
But when they call the Captain from the ERC it happened again. They then engaged it “manually” and disconnected the automatic function. No more problem.

The vessel had had a small fire in the engine room a while ago, causing damages to the electric system. This had been fixed, but they had been rushed out from the shipyard to get back on hire. What appeared to be the problem was that the wiring for the voice activated phone from the bridge and to the clutch activation was running parallel somewhere. The insulation had been slightly burnt and vibrations had eventually caused there to be contact between the two.

After testing that the clutches would stay in I approved the boat for use, with the instruction that the Captain should stay off the phone until we finished the rig move.

PS> This was a UT 704 type, with CPP, so no need to clutch in and out to do the tow.


The story in the original post reminds me of an accident we had with a DC-9 that came down real hard on final approach. The PIC was reading off the checklist while the co-pilot was going over the items (or was it the other way around?). The pilot said “Spoilers: off”, and the co-pilot put his finger on the lever to confirm, and pressed it down. Oops.

There were no fatalities, but the aircraft was a total write-off. I remember seeing pictures of one of the nacelles hanging by the wiring.

Edit: I had the details wrong, but hey, it’s been over 30 years. Details:

I sailed on two of them.

I, stop, take a deep breath, double check and then bang the button or as we do now, right click the mouse!!

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There are all inadvertent unless I head from the engineer ahead of time requesting permission to shut down for some planned reason.

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A year ago I happily downgraded to an older ship where the main switchboard is in the ECR & where I actually lay my hands on it to make things happen. But even when I worked on newer vessels where switchboard operations were done remotely with a mouse, I still kept my hands in my pockets unless I had them out to intentionally make a click.

One good thing about the newer, computer/mouse operated switchboards that I worked on, it was nearly impossible to black the boat out with human error. I never seen it happen. Another generator would come on-line & sync before the first one shut off & opening a bus-tie breaker to black out 1/2 or 1/4 of the ship was impossible. If the bus had too much load on it, stand-by generators would come on automatically as needed to prevent the on-line gens from being overloaded. It’s nice they made the newer systems nearly dummy-proof but on the down side, I worked with newer engineers who couldn’t operate the powerplant locally from the switchboard to save their lives.