An investigation by the Liberian Registry and the resulting Decision of the Commissioner of Maritime Affairs for the Republic of Liberia into the sinking of the passengership Explorer off the South Shetland Islands in November 2007, while on an Antarctic cruise, has concluded that the primary reason for the casualty was a mistaken interpretation by the vessel's master of the nature of the ice he was entering.
The Liberian-registered Explorer was on an eighteen-day round-trip from Argentina to Antarctica when it sank on November 23, 2007, 25 miles south-east of Penguin Island in the Bransfield Strait. All 54 crew and 100 passengers abandoned the ship without loss of life or major injury and were rescued by the Norwegian vessel Nordnorge. On the evening of the previous day, the vessel had entered an ice field described by the master as 'first-year ice'. At around midnight it hit a 'wall of ice', sustaining damage to a section of its hull, which led to rapid flooding. Despite the best efforts of the crew, it was not possible to contain the flooding in the compartment which had sustained the initial damage, and the vessel sank.
An investigation conducted by the Liberian Registry, in co-operation with the Chilean Navy, has now concluded that the decision by the master to enter the ice field, based on his knowledge and information available at the time, was the primary reason for the casualty. The report of the investigation says the master was "under the mistaken impression that he was encountering first-year ice when in fact ...it was much harder land ice... The master of the Explorer was very experienced in Baltic waters but he was unfamiliar with the type of ice he encountered in Antarctic waters. The master should have altered course to open water and not have entered the ice field during darkness. However, once he had entered the ice field and approached the wall of ice there is no indication that he reduced the Explorer's speed as he approached and then made contact with the wall of ice.”
Highlighting the heroic efforts which resulted in the survival and rescue of all passengers and the entire crew, the report states, "The master and crew should be recognized for the actions taken to ensure the survival of the passengers under the difficult conditions and circumstances that they had to deal with. The master's decision to have the passengers abandon the vessel, as well as the engine crew's efforts to restore and maintain power so that the passengers could be successfully put into lifeboats, in all likelihood saved lives."
The Liberian Administration is to undertake another review to determine whether some of the IMO guidelines, circulars and resolutions - such as those relating to vessels operating in Antarctic and Arctic waters, minimum safe manning, float-free or quick-release VDR installation - should be made mandatory.
Among other recommendations, the report of the investigation says that administrative action should be taken against the certificate of competency issued to the master of the Explorer in view of the lack of knowledge which contributed to the cause of the casualty. And Liberia should use its influence at IMO to recommend the establishment of competency training requirements for ice navigation pursuant to STCW 1978 As Amended, and the securing of VDR capsules with hydrostatic releases.
The report recommends that the Liberian Administration inform DNV, the vessel's classification society, that its procedures should be revised so that vessels' gauging records are maintained and available throughout the life of any vessel, and that its minimum requirements for deck and shell plating thickness for all ice-class vessels should be revised for the consideration of updating current standards. The Liberian Administration should also inform DNV that it should review its survey procedures, focusing on the lessons learned from the investigation, so that surveyors review flooding boundaries to determine if vessel systems and components such as the sewage system and down-flooding ducts can compromise the vessel's watertight boundary in the event of damage and flooding.
Finally, the report recommends that the Liberian Administration inform G.A.P Shipping Co Ltd, the operator of the Explorer, that it should review its procedures for review of, among other things, abandon-ship and crowd control procedures, and drilling and training in connection with lifeboat engines.