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Safety Lessons from Marine Incident Investigation (AMSA Report) – No.5 – March 2022

Sudden vessel movement resulting in master incapacitation highlights onboard safety risks


A class 3B fishing vessel sustained a steering pump failure after crossing a bar. Following, the master shut down the main engine and entered the engine room to evaluate the situation. As he was coming out of the engine room to request tools from the deckhands, the vessel was hit by a large wave causing the hatch cover to hit the master on the head. As a result, he fell into the engine room injured and fuzzy, and lost his senses for an unknown period.  When he regained his senses, the master realised the vessel was drifting towards the bar entrance and radioed a MAYDAY call for assistance. 

What happened 

At about 1255 on 25 May 2021, after crossing a bar and 200m beyond the southern breakwater, the master of a class 3B fishing vessel felt the steering helm suddenly lock making the wheel movement hard. He reduced speed and stopped the engine. The master entered the engine room and saw that the drive belt was missing from the steering pump. He emerged partially from the engine room hatch calling to his deckhands to get him tools to replace the drive belt with the spare belt located nearby. 

At this point, the vessel was hit on the port beam by a large wave causing the hatch cover to close and hit the master on the head. The master fell onto the main engine and then onto the engine room floor. He sustained a heavy knock to his scalp, felt fuzzy and lost his senses for an unknown period. The master emerged from the engine room after regaining his senses, assessed the that the vessel was drifting close to the bar entrance and radioed a MAYDAY call. During this time, the master was concerned that with the current drift, the vessel would become stranded against the north breakwater. He re-started the main engine in astern, backing the vessel away from the north breakwater. The vessel drifted towards the beach and entered calm waters before the surf breakers and with the water police in attendance, the crew abandoned the vessel. 

Investigation findings 

The investigation identified the following contributory factors: 

  • The V-belt that drives the steering pump from the main engine failed resulting in no hydraulic power for the steering system. This one-belt only configuration resulted in a single point of failure known to the master as he had placed a spare belt within reach.  
  • The only means by which the master could replace the V-belt was to stop the main engine, resulting in the vessel losing propulsion power that may have prevented the vessel from drifting into danger. 
  • An emergency steering system was available onboard however, this could not be easily deployed due to the addition of an A frame to the rear transom for quad gear hindering the operation of the tiller arm. 
  • While the master was incapacitated, the deckhands took no steps to resolve the developing situation onboard. It was not until the master regained his senses that he made a MAYDAY call and ensured the vessel was out of immediate danger. 
  • The master stated that the vessel’s safety management system went missing after the incident and no records concerning drills or emergency procedures could be produced. 

Safety message 

Masters/operators of domestic commercial vessels must complete a risk assessment of the risks that can influence the safety of their vessels and put mitigating strategies in place. This incident highlighted that the steering pump drive belt was a single point of failure that could not be easily rectified by bringing the emergency steering system into play and could only be fixed by shutting off the main engine thus removing propulsion power. This situation put the safety of the crew and vessel in danger.  

All crew must be familiar with the risk assessment of the vessel and trained in dealing with emergencies through regular drills. In this case, the vessel crew’s inaction following the incapacitation of the skipper indicates that they were not trained in emergency drills or procedures, could not make a MAYDAY call and could not get the vessel out of harm’s way if the master had not regained his senses. 

Last updated: 9 May 2022