Vessel aground, not a total balls up.

James CloseJames, Thoughts

I’m sure you are all aware of the Car Transporter that ran aground on the Bramble Bank. All three balls on display is the day signal for a vessel aground, and the way I remember this is that going aground is usually a “total balls up”, but in this case not so. I was walking back from a friends house the night it happened and put the BBC News channel on before heading to bed. I saw the newsflash that a cargo ship was aground in the Solent, so continued to watch…

I was shocked by the reporting inaccuracies that are allowed to go to air. Knowing the area well and understanding the maritime world, it was obvious to me the mistakes the reporters were making, and the ignorance of the Newscaster. He seemed shocked that the vessel was so close to land. Over and over he kept questioning, surely the vessel should be no where near that part of the world, what were they doing there? With a bit of thought I would have thought that it is obvious that all vessels have to make contact with the land, that is the whole point of them! To transport people or cargo from LAND across the sea to some other LAND.


Despite the lack of knowledge on display it didn’t stop them trying to lay blame on the captain or the pilot and come up with theories of what must have happened. They were pretty convinced it must have been a navigation error. On the social media comments box at the bottom of the news story on websites, the general public were chipping in with their comments “The bridge crew were probably eating pizzas and watching telly” etc.. I find it astonishing that the media and social media can say what it likes without checking of the facts, that is the problem with instant news and exclusives… The prime objective is to be first, accuracy and good reports are down the list of priority it seems to me.

For some sense, I turned to sailing anarchy, an american website that has forums on anything to do with sailing. Usually lots of ranting and raving and arguments, but there are some interesting people on there who seem to know what is going on. Sure enough someone had seen the vessel listing, before it went aground. They also posted the GPS ground track from shipfinder, another website that shows the position of all vessels within range of land that have AIS transmitting. It showed the vessel making a sharp turn of almost 180 degrees to port, before coming to rest on its starboard side against the bank. It was quite obvious that something had broken with the steering gear, or the list had caused a sharp turn or she had been deliberately beached.

A day or so later after a press conference, the facts started to emerge. It seems that there was some sort of ballasting problem, or fuel was allowed to flow from one side to the other. We will have to wait for the MAIB report, but it appears that there was a stability problem and the pilot had to make a split second decision what to do about it. It is a remarkable decision, when you have almost 30 lives on board, over 100 million pounds worth of cargo and a multi million pound vessel in your hands. Had the pilot or captain hesitated they could have capsized in the main channel and sunk, which would have inevitably led to loss of life, the destruction of the cargo and the ship, an environmental disaster and also, potentially blocked the shipping channel into Southampton which would have had a huge impact on the UK economy. According to reports it seems that all on the bridge were professional and calm with Southampton VTS co-ordinating, and the RNLI rescue operation was successful with no loss of life.

I wonder if the pilot training covers what to do in that situation, or whether it was seamanship and instinct that led to the pilot making the correct decision. With time and hindsight it is easy to see that what he did was spot on, but deliberately running into the Bramble Bank is such an alien concept, it is remarkable that he was able to decide to do it with so little time for consideration. Usually in skippering it is training and drills that help you make the right decision in an instant, but some situations are not trained for, so you have to rely on experience and instinct. Failure to make a decision is not an option, making the wrong decision can have huge consequences. These sea farers are true professionals and certainly earn their money. They deserve our respect, not the snide comments from people who don’t know what they are talking about!