Marine Safety at Every Level

By Tracy Murrell

The stern of the 85 foot catamaran Spirit of Adventure rests on the bottom of Seward Small Boat Harbor.  Photo credit: Steve Fink
The stern of the 85 foot catamaran Spirit of Adventure rests on the bottom of Seward Small Boat Harbor. Photo credit: Steve Fink

Earlier this year, I wrote about the 100th anniversary of the signing of the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, or SOLAS, first adopted in January 1914, and inspired by the 1912 sinking of the RMS Titanic.

Life at sea is indeed immeasurably safer since the passage of SOLAS. But international treaties like SOLAS and legislation at the national level are never instant, or complete, fixes.

In fact, in May 1914, just months after SOLAS was first signed, the Norwegian ship SS Storstad came out of heavy fog to collide with the RMS Empress of Ireland (“Canada’s Titanic”) on the St. Lawrence River. About 14 minutes later, the Empress of Ireland sank, taking more than 1,000 lives.

I invite those who aren’t familiar with the Empress of Ireland accident to research it further. But the stark fact is that the 100th anniversary year of SOLAS also included the 100th anniversary of another marine tragedy rivaling the sinking of the Titanic.

A new treaty, or law, or technological advance is never enough. Layers of safety have to interleave to protect the lives of mariners and passengers at sea. There are international treaties, national laws, and industry standards, and improving each of them improves safety. But safety depends just as much on people and procedures, all the way down to individual actions.

In the first week of December, the NTSB launched investigators to four major marine casualties – that is, significant accidents and incidents. We launched to a fifth just days before, on November 29. Fortunately, no lives were lost – although there were injuries in some cases, and extensive property damage in all:

  • November 29, 2014: At 4:17 a.m. PST, west of Siletz Bay, OR, the Commercial Fishing Vessel Blazer took on water and sank. Five people were rescued by the United States Coast Guard (USCG). Minor injuries were reported.
  • December 1, 2014: At 7:23 a.m. CST, south of Port Fourchon, LA, the Commercial Fishing Vessel Miss Eva caught fire. Three on board were injured, one seriously.
  • December 4, 2014: At 2:42 a.m. EST, in Eastport, ME, the Eastport Port Authority Breakwater Terminal Pier collapsed, completely submerging three vessels and breaking others free of their moorings, obstructing the entrance to the harbor.
  • December 5, 2014: at 2:16 a.m. PST, the 171 gross ton Commercial Fishing Vessel Titan reported that it had run aground and was taking on water at the “A” Jetty in Ilwaco Channel, WA. The USCG responded and attempted, unsuccessfully, to help the 5-member crew to dewater the vessel. The crew was subsequently evacuated on a USCG motor life boat. The Titan slowly sank, releasing some of the 3,500 gallons of diesel fuel onboard.
  • December 8, 2014: At 9 a.m. AKST, the 99 gross-ton Passenger Vessel Spirit of Adventure was found partially submerged at the dock in Seward Harbor, AK. No crew or passengers were on board at the time of the incident. Damage is estimated at $1 million.

Our investigative work on each of these events has just begun, and it may be months before their lessons are fully learned. But there will be lessons. If the lessons are applied, the circumstances leading to these accidents and incidents can be prevented in the future.

While some suffered injuries in these five events, we will have learned these lessons without loss of life. They will be bargains, so to speak, in the world of marine accident investigation.

I invite readers to read our brief digest of completed marine investigations, Safer Seas 2013. In 2015 we will publish Safer Seas 2014, to share the lessons of investigative activities completed this year. We urge all those who take to the seas – and all who are involved in marine enterprises – to review these lessons.

Countless lives have been saved by SOLAS, national laws, improving industry standards, and better technology. More will be saved by addressing the lessons we learn in future investigations – and by individual mariners taking to heart the lessons already learned.


Tracy Murrell is the Director of NTSB’s Office of Marine Safety

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