Is the USCG "Safety Alert" following the safety steps of a true "Safety Alert"

Was this the original causation f the vessel sinking?

I think it’s just a lesson learned. Although it is possible the CG might be motivated to imply that the crew is to blame.

4/4/2018: Marine Safety Alert 04/18 – Operation of main propulsion and essential auxiliary machinery

Posted by LT Amy Midgett, Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Written by the Office of Design and Engineering Standards staff

The Coast Guard distributed Marine Safety Alert 04-18, “Compliance with SOLAS and USCG Regulations for Operation of Main Propulsion and Essential Auxiliary Machinery: Lessons Learned from the SS El Faro Casualty,” to inform operators of the role that the main propulsion lube oil system was found to have played in the EL FARO casualty. This alert also recommends that operators, especially ship engineers, review the operational procedures and limitations of vital propulsion machinery, and verify compliance with SOLAS, Classification Society and regulatory standards.

The Coast Guard Marine Board Report on the sinking of the EL FARO, with 33 lives lost, revealed that loss of propulsion during extremely heavy weather was a contributing factor to the sinking of the vessel. The exact operational status of all vital EL FARO engineering equipment during the hours preceding the casualty could not be determined. However, bridge audio recordings indicate that the vessel lost lube oil pressure to the main propulsion turbine and reduction gear bearings, resulting in loss of propulsion. It is believed that the vessel’s substantial list, coupled with trim by the bow, caused the main engine lube oil pump to lose suction. A detailed modeling and static analysis of EL FARO’s lube oil system determined that a severe inclination of the ship, coupled with a relatively low volume of oil in the sump, would likely result in a loss of pump suction. Figure 1 shows examples (at a constant lube oil volume) of the position of the suction bellmouth relative to the level of lube oil in the sump in several heel and trim conditions. This static model does not attempt to address the sloshing of lube oil in the sump caused by vessel motions.

The Coast Guard notes that, although the EL FARO’s engineering plant configuration was similar in design to most steam turbine ships of a similar age, the vast majority of large oceangoing commercial ships currently operating have marine diesel engines as the primary source of ship propulsion. However, failure of a vessel’s lube oil system generally means a loss of propulsion for all types of engineering plants. For a single-turbine ship like EL FARO, this type of casualty would result in a total loss of maneuverability until the system can be restored.

graphic depicting list of El Faro

Title 46 of the Code of Federal Regulations (46 CFR), Section 58.01-40, requires that propulsion machinery and all auxiliary machinery essential to the propulsion and safety of the vessel (such as the lube oil system) be designed to operate:

a) when the vessel is upright,
b) when the vessel is inclined under static conditions at any angle of list up to and including 15°, and
c) when the vessel is inclined under dynamic conditions (rolling) at any angle of list up to and including 22.5° degrees and, simultaneously, at any angle of trim (pitching) up to and including 7.5° by the bow or stern.

The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), Chapter II-1, Regulation 26.6, essentially has the same requirements as 46 CFR 58.01-40.

There is no compelling evidence to suggest that U.S. vessels are not in compliance with the above CFR and SOLAS standards. However, given the criticality of propulsion and essential auxiliary machinery, particularly in heavy weather or high-traffic areas, the Coast Guard strongly recommends that:

• Operators verify that their main propulsion machinery, essential auxiliary systems, and emergency generators are designed in compliance with the CFR, SOLAS and Classification Society requirements for operation in static and dynamic conditions of list and trim.
• Engineering Department personnel review the design, arrangement, limiting angles of inclination, normal and limiting high/low lubricating oil sump levels, and casualty control procedures for all systems vital to the propulsion and safety of the vessel to better understand the possible ways to mitigate the effects of heavy weather on vessel operations.

This safety alert is provided for informational purposes only and does not relieve any domestic or international safety, operational, or material requirements. Developed by the Office of Design and Engineering Standards. Questions may be sent to

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I think that the causation of the sinking of the vessel was the fact that it was on a collision course with a nasty hurricane and getting too close for comfort.


I don’t believe anyone can take issue with that simple, but complete, statement.

And while there weren’t many options remaining available to get away from the situation they were in early that morning, the loss of propulsion certainly eliminated any remaining maneuvering option. From the report, it appears that the main lube oil sump was at, or near, the lower limit of allowable operating range. We will never know whether lube oil pressure would have been lost, or the ship lost, if the sump was at, or near, the upper level of operating range when they left Jax.

I was Chief Engineer of a USN Knox-class frigate in early January 1977, headed from a fuel stop in the Azores to Portsmouth, England. A huge, strong, dangerous winter storm was sitting fairly stationary about 700nm west of the Bay of Biscay. Heading NE, when off Biscay we had Force 12 winds on the port quarter and massive swells overtaking us from the same point, as we ran at 23kts on a single boiler. (That class has two boilers and one main engine with HP and LP turbines on the reduction gear). I went to the bridge to talk with the Captain, and I broached the subject of bringing up the second boiler for redundancy. We decided to leave the plant as configured, but he clearly said that if we dropped the load we would likely broach and our 4,300-ton ship could easily be lost in those seas. I will have to say that the question of lube oil sump levels, in the main engine or such auxiliaries as turbine generators, never occurred to me, or any of the senior ratings in the engineroom.

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I won’t deny that the failing of the plant was not particularly helpful under these circumstances…

Glad to hear that you also have made your acquaintance with the Gulf of Biscay hell hole. Doing 23 knots with wind force 12 on the port side and massive swells is pretty courageous sailing. Under normal circumstances with a rolling, yawing and pitching ship and with no list oil sump levels were of no concern and the matter probably never came up. On the other hand under damage stability situation this is a real threat to maintaining propulsion and as such must have been mentioned somewhere during training, I would think.

For those in peril on the sea.

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Nobody knows how much lube oil was in the tank. The NTSB and the CG are using the number that was being used on the stability program.

I sailed many years as C/M, I’ve done stability calculations many times. I never called the E/R to get the amt in the LO tanks at departure. It doesn’t change enough to mean anything. I’ve never seen it on the chiefs “fuel numbers” where I work.

Given the workload of a C/M, especially at departure, does it seem reasonable that the chief mate would do something that took his time and the eng dept time for no gain?

Why wouldn’t the C/M just keep the old numbers if any change is not going to result in a change in the GM past two decimal points?


4.2 long tons of lube oil in the sump equates to a
sounding in the lube oil sump of approximately 25.5 inches.

Four tons? How much HFO is in the tanks when we call them MT? It takes 50 tons to change the drafts by one cm.

“Au contraire, as the man said in the Bay of Biscay when they asked if he’d dined.”

– Dorothy Sayers, “The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club.”

(Sorry, couldn’t resist.)




This. That’s the only number they had to go on. I’m willing to bet in practice, the levels were checked and topped off routinely.

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I rode out a good handful of storms on several a Knox class frigates also. Lost the radar antenna on two different ones.
Who can forget the way the bow would shake and shiver trying to lift that huge sonar dome back up after taking a deep plunge
Always good to see a liberty port after taking a prolonged beating out on station.

F12, 23kt, 1 ME??? Acceptable? I don’t think so unless a US F12 is like a US ton or gallon… I I do accept though that warships and merchant ships are different shapes! My experience? F12 northern North Atlantic with highest wave height of 25m…awesome!

Not only are they normally on the fuel reports I receive but I’ve called for lube oil tank levels, I haven’t called for the sump more than once (the old CM might have left it completely blank or I was double checking all the numbers). When I did I was told “we maintain it at X tons at all times, when it gets low we add oil.” So I set the program to that number of tons and never bothered with it again.

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In my experience, the FO book was completed on a weekly basis whilst LO was monthly. LO consumption on two stroke engines varies between 500l to say 1500l so it would not affect stability at all on the vessels I was on (35,000 plus). So apart from giving the mate LO figures, which could be up to 150 m3, after taking LO bunkers, it would be unusual to ask for them.

To be more specific the engine room reported lube oil used on their daily report and it was simple enough to subtract it out if I cared. The time I called was because the previous users of the stability program left the lube oil sump tank blank so I was finding out how much was in there.

MELO never varies downwards that much, a 2000l top up was a red letter day! But really 35 cubes low down and either side of the keel for twins or on the keel for singles is going to affect stability not one jot on a big boat :slight_smile:

As I said previously, the first told me they maintain the level at X tons so I set it there in the program and never looked at it again.