From today’s LL
BARELY three weeks after the warship USS John S McCain collided with the oil tanker Alnic MC on August 21, the waters around Singapore witnessed another fatal collision early on Wednesday.
The latest accident — involving the tanker Kartika Segara and the dredger JBB De Rong — brings the number of collisions so far this year to seven.
Data from Lloyd’s List Intelligence from 2007 shows that the number of collisions every year around Singapore waters has ranged from a low of six in 2009, 2010 and 2011 to as high as 11 in 2014 and 10 in 2013. From the 2014 high, the number fell to eight in 2015 and seven in 2016.
This equates to an average of 8.1 collisions per year over the period, or a minimum average of one accident at least every two months.
As in a busy highway where car crashes are sometimes expected, Singapore sits in the middle of shipping routes connecting east and west.
The Singapore Strait is one of the world’s busiest sea lanes where vessels are separated by less than a nautical mile, or about 1.8 km, and daily vessel movements total more than 1,000.
To further illustrate the density, the world’s second-biggest container port handles more than 30m teu every year.
So, are the waters around Singapore just too congested for ships to avoid colliding with each other?
The answer is actually a “no”, as both of the recent collisions could have been avoided.
As for the Kartika Segara and JBB De Rong collision, both vessels had not heeded warnings from the port’s vessel traffic control to avoid the collision, and in the case of the USS John S McCain and the Alnic MC, the warship was not detected, possibly due to not switching on the automatic identification system, and there was also steering gear failure.
The port also uses a traffic separation scheme to reduce collisions. The scheme involves neatly co-ordinating ships sailing through a busy strait by moving them into distinct lanes heading in the same direction.
An ex-naval officer with extensive experience said that 8-10 collisions a year is not much different from other very busy harbours in busy straits and narrow channels, while emphasising that more should be done to avoid fatal accidents.
More often than not, such accidents are due to human error or mechanical error.
Ship collisions have a greater probability of occurring at night when the crew may be tired and visibility is poor. The Kartika Segara and JBB De Rong collision was slightly after midnight while the John S McCain and Alnic MC collision occurred in the pre-dawn hours.
To further remind shipping crews, who sometimes pay with their lives in such collisions, the ex-naval officer suggested having a standby radar switched on during the night or when it is raining, and having an extra person on watch during the night, ideally someone senior.
And as the maritime sector embraces digitalisation, an over-reliance on technology can also be responsible for collisions. Actually seeing vessels from the deck is much better at avoiding collisions than just relying on the radar, which may not pick up small boats or where a miscalculation might suggest an approaching vessel being further way than it actually is.
There has been an increasing focus on safety at sea, highlighting issues such as mental health of seafarers, but perhaps more can also be done in terms of training and motivation of crews to keep them safe from collisions.