The collision should be an eye-opener for Mumbai port authorities.
N. K. Kurup | The Hindustan Business Line
What could have caused the collision between two ships in broad daylight in Mumbai harbour that led to the oil spill along the coastline and suspension of vessel traffic to Mumbai and JN ports last week? Human error, negligence on the part of the captain and failure of communication facilities are being discussed as part of the speculation doing the rounds.
As the Director-General of Shipping is investigating the cause of the mishap, it may not be appropriate to comment on it. However, a look at the ship traffic management system at Mumbai port and the circumstances in which the collision took place may help understand the outcome of the investigations better.
How it happened
According to reports, the collision took place around 10 a.m on August 7 in the common channel for both Mumbai and JN Port. The container ship MSC Chitra, which was coming out of JN port, was hit by the break-bulk carrier MV Khalijia III, as it was proceeding to berth at Mumbai port. Following the collision MSC Chitra tilted and over 300 loaded containers fell from the ship into the water, blocking vessel traffic though the main channel.
The ship slowly moved and was grounded outside the channel. The other vessel, its bows severely damaged, was safely berthed at Mumbai port. Salvage experts were immediately summoned and many of the containers have been retrieved. Traffic has partially resumed from Friday, with the help of the Navy.
Ships coming to Mumbai and JN Port terminals use a common main navigation channel, before entering the respective port’s approach channels. The movement of ships at Mumbai and JN ports is controlled by a Vessel Traffic Management System equipped with high frequency electronic communication facilities.
The VTMS, similar to the air traffic control system for aircraft, uses radar and high frequency radio telephony to keep track of ships. Each port has a different VHF channel. JNPT operates on VHF-13 and Mumbai Port VHF-12.
According to senior official at JN Port, a ship coming into Mumbai port from JN port can, depending on the facility on board, keep both the communication channels on. If that is not possible, it has to switch over from VHF-13 to 12 when it enters the Mumbai port.
Pilotage is compulsory for all large ships calling at Mumbai port. At the time of the collision, however, both the ships in question were commanded by their own captains.
According to Mr Rahul Astana, Chairman, Mumbai port, this was because both ships were away from the pilot’s station. The JNPT pilot disembarked the container ship before it entered the main channel while the Mumbai port pilot was yet to board the other ship.
A collision in such a situation raises several questions. Was there a communication failure? Did the captain fail to switch to the right channel? Did he fail to act on the warning? The enquiry report will hold the answers to these questions.
The owners of the container ship MSC Chitra allege that MV Khalijia III flouted the navigation rules that led to the collision. According to the vessel’s voyage data recorder, they claim their ship was proceeding well within its way though the main channel when the other ship re-entered the channel after crossing it and turned to the port side, flouting navigation rules.
As it happened, within two minutes, it was hit by the other ship’s bow. The Khalijia has yet to come out with any statement. However, there are also reports that the voyage recorder shows alert messages sent by the captain of the Khalijia-III to MSC Chitra’s captain. Fortunately, there was no loss of human life but the oil spill caused by the mishap could endanger marine life along the coast line. Apart from retrieving the fallen containers, there is a huge cost involved in the clean-up of the oil slick.
Mr S. Venkiteswaran, senior maritime lawyer, says the owners of both ships will have to bear the costs, based on the percentage of their responsibility in the incident. It could be 50:50 or 75:25, or any other ratio. That can be fixed only after the investigations are over and based on its findings.
Lack of preparedness
According to Mr S. Hajara, Chairman SCI, one of the largest port users in the country, accidents do take place at ports. Quick response is the key in an emergency situation. Capt S. Shahi, Chairman, Shahi Shipping, a leading coastal shipping operator, said the incident should be an eye-opener for Mumbai port.
Its technical team needs regular training in handling ship traffic. Mr S.B. Agnihotri, Director-General of Shipping, who is co-ordinating the salvage operations, said: “We did our best. This is evident from the fact that the ports could resume traffic within five days. However, night navigation may take some more days to begin.”