Designed For Danger

This article highlights once again the paucity of good ergonomic standard bridge design often influenced by well meaning navel architects, salesmen of bridge equipment or retired naval officers who have had no or little practical experience in keeping a bridge watch or close quarter ship handling.

Lloyds List 22 Nov 2017  by  Michael Grey

EVERY well-designed ship represents a compromise of aims for the designer. Even the dimensions involve a balance between the demands for a capacious cargo-carrying space and the need to reduce resistance. The need to minimise the draught or keep the length beneath certain parameters, or the requirement for an air draught to enable the ship to pass under a certain bridge may demand compromises in other directions. The need for power, great manoeuvrability or cargo requirements mean balances must be made if the ship is to function well.

It is also curious to note how design features that were once thought important have now been relegated to the history books, largely to reduce the cost of building ships. It was, for instance, regarded by mariners as desirable that the ship’s bridge should be close to the mid-length of the hull. Elderly people may recall tankers with a centre castle, even though the machinery was in the after part of the ship. They might also remember ships with camber, to keep the decks dry, and a rise of floor forward and aft, which, along with raised forecastles and poops, would keep the seas where they belonged.

Some adventurous designers, whose identity is surely lost in the mists of time, must, at some stage have suggested that all these things were unnecessary and, by pandering to seafarers, only increased the costs of shipbuilding. Henceforth, ships would be constructed to a more utilitarian pattern, with accommodation piled right down aft or up in the eyes of the ship where it would be a useful breakwater. Presumably, those paying the bills would have agreed with these changes wholeheartedly, ignoring protests from those who might have needed to live on board and work the ships.

With our modern enthusiasm for environmental priorities, other pressures pile onto the designers’ computer. Fuel saving, reasonably equated with saving the planet, requires the power to be minimised, while speed, which was once a matter of pride to a shipowner, is now severely curtailed. And waking up to the fact that a wind from ahead tends to slow down a ship, streamlining has become a new fashion.

Mind you, such enthusiasms for new and radical designs bring with them the risk of unforeseen consequences. I sailed in a wonderfully streamlined ship, which looked as if it could go fast, but in fact was no faster than any other of the same power. The bridge front was elegantly curved and the windows set in at an angle, which meant that if you stood too close to the glass you bumped your head. Worse still, while the windows meant that there were no night-time reflections, rain, dew and snow lay on the surface and obstructed visibility. The unprepared would come onto the bridge, conclude it was foggy and prepare to put the engines on stand-by, before realising that it was perfectly clear. It is why the Safety of Life at Sea Convention has required windows to be angled in to their lower edge.

Savings to the environment

I can remember seeing the extraordinary design of the car carrier City of Rotterdam when it arrived in North Sea waters and remembering my beautiful old ship. The designers of this ship and its owners were triumphantly telling the world of the savings to the environment that would result from a forepart that resembled a tennis ball with windows. To maintain the perfect curve, only the window which was on the centreline was perpendicular to the fore and aft axis, with those on either side sloping away to the sides. It was certainly a very striking looking vessel, though once again it occurred to me that the ship was being handled from a position right over the bow.

I wonder if any master or pilot was able to cast his eyes over this singular design while it was on the drawing board. The ship’s flag state, Panama, was persuaded to approve its non-SOLAS compliant bridge arrangement and the vessel went into service, to enthusiastic remarks about its fuel consumption and environmental signature.

So it was sad to learn, nearly two years ago, that the car carrier had been involved in a nasty bump in the River Humber and that subsequently, the Marine Accident Investigation Branch had concluded that a major contributory factor was the design of the wheelhouse. On a wild night, with the outbound ship making a lot of leeway in the wind, the pilot, standing behind one of the angled windows off the centre, was fooled by the illusion that he was looking ahead, when his view was on the bow. He believed that he was steering almost south to gain the right-hand side of the channel but it was an illusion, and he was failing to clear the incoming ferry. The MAIB also reported that pilots elsewhere had found difficulties caused by this ultra-green design.

The report from the MAIB, objective and professional as they are, must not be used in evidence but it seems quite extraordinary that presumably after they had read the report, Maritime & Coastguard prosecutors saw fit to send the master and pilot of the ship to the Crown Court in Hull, where, after they pleaded guilty to a number of charges, they were given custodial sentences, albeit suspended. It is, after reading the MAIB report, difficult to ascertain the logic of this approach, unless it is designed to demonstrate that henceforth, all accidents, no matter how they were caused, render the participants liable to a severe sentence, on the Admiral Byng principle.

It is not too far-fetched to conclude that while plenty of seafarers over the years have lost their lives because of design problems, these two individuals have been criminalised by the same.


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