Collision of frigate Helge Ingstad and tanker was a ‘symphony of errors’

The Nautical Institute discusses the collision between the Norwegian frigate Helge Ingstad and the tanker Sola TS in a recent Mars Report and calls it a ‘symphony of errors’. A lack of situational awareness, no plotting of vessel movements, poor communication, a lack of experience, making assumptions, the list of mistakes seems endless.

The Mars Reports are compiled (anonymously) by The Nautical Institute to prevent other accidents from happening. A summary of the incident that occurred on 8 November 2018 in the Hjeltefjord near Bergen:

In the early morning hours, a navy frigate was underway in darkness and good visibility at about 17 knots. Its navigation lights were on, but the AIS was in receive mode only and therefore was not transmitting own AIS information – as is sometimes the case with military vessels.

The bridge was manned with an officer of the watch (OOW) and another six crew including two lookouts and a helmsman. The OOW called the local VTS by mobile phone, informing them that the frigate would enter the VTS area from the north and giving its planned route through the VTS area. The VTS operator saw a radar echo on his overview screen, which was assumed to be the naval vessel.

Because the frigate was not transmitting AIS signals, there was no information about the vessel’s identity, course and speed vectors.

The OOW’s attention was focused on three vessels that were approaching from ahead on the port side. He informed the bridge team of the three approaching vessels and asked them to notify him of any further observations. In addition, the bridge team could see a floodlit “object” on the starboard side, but they did not discuss it or examine it further on the radar or via AIS because they assumed it was an object on shore.

Meanwhile, a tanker was getting ready to depart a terminal some distance from the oncoming frigate. The bridge on the tanker was manned by the pilot, the master, an OOW and a helmsman. The pilot called the VTS on the VHF to announce their imminent departure. The deck lights of the tanker were left on to ensure adequate visibility for the crew during departure and afterwards as they secured equipment in case of heavy weather.

Soon, the tanker was moving away from the terminal. The pilot called VTS to announce their departure and intentions. The pilot ordered a course of 350° with the tanker now at a SOG of about 3 knots. The pilot had seen two southbound vessels to the north, one of which was the frigate, and two northbound vessels to the south.
About 12 minutes later the tanker’s speed had increased to about 6 knots. The frigate was by now about 1.5 nm away and was approaching at an angle of 10–12° on the port bow.

The pilot saw only the vessel’s green light and realised that the vessel would cross the tanker’s course line. The pilot requested AIS data about the vessel from the tanker’s master, but the master replied that the vessel was not transmitting AIS data. The pilot then called VTS and requested information about the vessel, but VTS, having forgotten it was the frigate, replied that they had no information on the vessel.

The pilot then asked the master to use the Aldis lamp to signal the oncoming ship. Shortly after signalling with the Aldis lamp, the master and the pilot observed both sidelights of the frigate so they assumed it was turning to starboard. Yet, shortly afterwards, they again saw only the green light, so they continued sending out light signals with the Aldis lamp.

The pilot ordered a course change of 10° to starboard to indicate to the approaching vessel that they were making an evasive manoeuvre. At about the same time, the OOW on the frigate ordered a course change to port of about 10 degrees, which was applied in small increments.

As the two vessels approached each other the VTS operator now remembered the frigate’s report some hours earlier and he immediately called the pilot on the tanker. By this time there was approximately 875 metres between the two vessels.

The pilot broadcast over VHF: ‘Turn starboard if you are the one approaching.’ The OOW on the frigate understood the call to be from one of the three other northbound vessels that wanted the frigate to go further to starboard to increase the passing distance. The OOW still thought the “object” on the starboard side was stationary and that they could not go further to starboard without getting too close to the “object”.

Meanwhile, the tanker was still altering course to starboard and increasing speed, now at about 7 knots. On the frigate, the team saw the lights on their starboard side were getting closer, but they believed that the OOW was in control of the situation. On the tanker, the master, seeing that the situation was becoming critical, ordered “stop engines”.

The OOW on the frigate suddenly realised that the “object” that was giving off light was moving and that they were on a direct collision course. Seconds later, the pilot on the tanker ordered full speed astern on the engines but the two vessels collided nonetheless. The tanker’s starboard anchor ploughed into the starboard side of the frigate causing extensive damage.

What went wrong here?

In its report, The Nautical Institute refers to a video published by HANSA online, which can be seen below. According to Ingvild Ytrehus, Senior Adviser of the The Accident Investigation Board Norway: ‘The leadership, organisation and teamwork on the bridge of the frigate were inexpedient. Among other things, there were two trainees and the OOW was young and had limited experience. A fixed situational awareness led to a lack of attention to the overall traffic situation.’

In addition, as the tanker was sailing with its deck lights on, it was difficult for the frigate’s crew to identify it as a vessel while it also made it harder to spot the light signals. Moreover, ‘Vessel Traffic Service did not adequately monitor the area,’ Ytrehus adds. This disrupted communication. In addition, the pilot’s communication was not completely clear and the VTS never intervened to give direct orders to the frigate. This did not happen as it was assumed the frigate knew the tanker was a moving vessel. In fact, most decisions in this situation were made on wrong assumptions.

Advice from The Nautical Institute

  • Small course changes are to be avoided if you want to signal to an oncoming vessel, via radar and visual aspect, that you are changing course.
  • Darkness and/or poor visibility changes everything. Would this have happened in daylight?
  • Radar targets that are not emitting AIS signals should always be plotted.
  • Never assume. Establish the facts.

Scrapped

The Helge Ingstad was severely damaged in the collision and beached. On 13 November 2018, the ship sank where it had run aground and became a constructive total loss. It was raised in a salvage operation from 27 February 2019 to 3 March 2019. On 14 May 2019, it was reported the cost of repairing the frigate would exceed 1.4 billion US dollars, according to the Forsvaret, nearly three times the original cost to build it. Therefore, in June 2019, it was decided that it would be scrapped.

The Solas TS on the other hand suffered only minor damages.

Mars Reports

This accident was covered in the Mars Reports, originally published as Mars 202018, that are part of Report Number 330. A selection of this Report has also been published in SWZ|Maritime’s May 2020 issue. The Nautical Institute compiles these reports to help prevent maritime accidents. That is why they are also published on SWZ|Maritime’s website.

More reports are needed to keep the scheme interesting and informative. All reports are read only by the Mars coordinator and are treated in the strictest confidence. To submit a report, please use the Mars report form.

Author: Mariska Buitendijk

Mariska Buitendijk is one of SWZ|Maritime's journalists as well as the magazine's copy editor.