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MSC Napoli: an accident waiting to happen

Lyme Bay, 23rd January 2007. A storm, a dramatic rescue and now a broken ship beached at a World Heritage Site with its cargo littering the foreshore.

The rescuers are to be commended, and we must keep our fingers crossed that the salvors can stop the further loss of polluting cargo and secure the Napoli’s 3500 tonnes of heavy fuel oil, but how did this sorry situation come about and what lessons does it provide for the future? Some will say that as long as ships go to sea there will be accidents, but is this acceptable and was what happened to the Napoli really an accident?

The storm faced by the Napoli was bad but not exceptional for the North Atlantic in winter, and of course vessels must be able to withstand such conditions. When heavy weather leads to massive structural failure it is hard not to conclude that there has been a failure somewhere in the process of design, build, maintenance and repair, and that those individuals and organisations responsible for ensuring that a vessel is safe to go to sea have not done their job properly.

Det Norske Veritas (DNV), the Napoli’s class society, has for some time been warning of the dangers of “fatigue cracking” in vessels like the Napoli. Long thin vessels, and container ships in particular, are inherently prone to twisting stresses at sea that can lead to cracking and structural failure. The effect has been identified in a number of vessels and is not restricted to older tonnage. DNV’s “fix” has been to provide its clients with a self-help manual that includes instructions to assist crew in identifying the first signs of fatigue cracking. It’s not clear whether the Napoli’s crew had been trained in this way, but it may well be that she was the victim of a known and well understood problem, but one that the regulatory authorities had failed to take action on.

The answer of course is to build stronger, more robust ships with larger safety margins and this is a key element of the Clean Ship approach advocated by Seas At Risk. In the meantime the class societies, flag-State administrations and port-State control authorities should step up their activities and keep a very close eye on all existing vessels that might be at risk.

If a design weakness played a part in the Napoli’s demise then her recent history may well have sealed her fate entirely. In March 2001 the Napoli, then named the Normandie, deviated from a deep-water channel in the Straights of Malacca and travelling at 22 knots ran straight onto a submerged coral reef. She spent several weeks on the reef and then four months being repaired in a Vietnamese shipyard; the damage caused to the ship’s hull was substantial and over 3000 tonnes of steel were used in the repairs. Only a full investigation will yield the precise details of the Napoli’s more recent structural failure but if it turns out to be linked to this incident in the Straights of Malacca and the quality of the repair work undertaken at the time, or indeed to poor maintenance in general, then the role of the class society that oversaw the repair work and certified the vessel fit for sea will quite rightly come under scrutiny.

It is also hard not to conclude that commercial pressures are in large part to blame for ships that fall apart at sea; the shipping industry is very cost sensitive and this can easily lead to inadequate safety margins, minimum maintenance, and botched repairs. We have been lucky with the Napoli - no loss of life and so far at least only modest damage to the environment - but without a culture change in the industry there will certainly be other more tragic incidents with their roots in the same malaise.
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