Seafarers Challenge Singapore Port on Airwaves Chaos

The Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA) has blamed human error and poor judgment for the three collisions that occurred in Singaporean waters earlier this year, but a survey of seafarers conducted by Captain Kuba Szymanski, secretary general of InterManager, shows another side to the story.

MPA claims there was lack of situational awareness of the bridge teams, including the pilots, although MPA’s Port Operations Control Centre had provided advisories and warnings of the traffic situation to the bridge teams. MPA also claims that the bridge teams did not make use of all available means at their disposal, such as the Automatic Identification System (AIS), Automatic Radar Plotting Aid (ARPA), Radar, and Electronic Chart Display and Information System (ECDIS) to avoid the collisions.

“A majority of the masters I spoke to praised Singapore vessel traffic service (VTS) for keeping good control of the vessels within their jurisdiction, but almost all masters complained about small traffic, local vessels not equipped with AIS and not reporting to VTS. Singapore does not seem to be in control of this traffic which very often impedes interntational trade,” says Szymanski.

“It is all very well to say that the bridge team should work better, but VTS using the local language when communicating with pilots immediately cuts out other members of the bridge team and introduces delays, as the pilot needs to translate discussion and decisions into English – the common language on the bridge.”

Szymanski cites an example of a 14,000 TEU container vessel – 365m long, 52m wide with draught of 16.15m. These are the master’s comments on the challenges he faces:

Situation 1: Leaving Pasir Panjang Terminal with a draught 16.15 we need to drop the pilot at Pulau Sebarok Island (also known as the Southern Boarding Ground) immediately before the West Traffic Line. This requires our vessel to be slowed down considerably in order to allow the pilot to leave. At this point we have vessels coming from the port side from behind the island which obscures the traffic lane. That requires the ship’s master to make a quick decision on how to merge into the existing traffic or even worse how to cross the traffic lane should we be required to go east. Needless to say this must be done without the pilot being present.

Situation 2: A second pilot station, Pilot Western Boarding Ground A, can be used for large container vessels coming from the west. In order to approach Pilot Boarding Place vessels are practically required to go upstream. This is compounded by more than one vessel approaching the pilot station sometimes. We have to slow down, and basically now the vessel is obstructing any other traffic. As always the captain is responsible for the situation.

Communication between the pilot and the VTS in the local language or in a mix of English and Chinese. Communication between the pilot and tug boats is again in the local language. Another master calls this chaos over the air waves: “Our vessel’s bridge is equipped with 3 VHFs. One is on VHF channel 16, one on 20 for the pilot and one for VTS, all are talking at the same time. The Singaporean MPA is right saying that that there is plenty of advice available – but who is able to digest all this information? It needs streamlining. Very, very often the pilot is also using a mobile phone, which cuts the bridge team out of the communication loop completely.”

Another master says that frequently he receives VTS orders contradicting COLREGS such as: “please let the vessel on your port side pass…”  Great stuff but what if something goes wrong, he asks.

Container vessels work to a very tight schedule, with no room for error. “This is highly stressful and encourages pilots to cut corners,” says a master. “Frequently when we are on board 14,000+ TEU container vessels, we have to hang around at the pilot station waiting for a late pilot. We are 365m long “islands” with pretty restricted maneuverability. There is not room for us to wait. There have been cases when the pilot has been advised by VTS to be waiting at a different pilot station. There is also a lack of emergency or operational anchorages where vessels could drop anchor and wait for missing or delayed pilots, instead of drifting and blocking the whole shipping lane.”

The pilot station for tankers at Gusong Boarding Ground has issues, says a tanker master. “Vessels approach it at a maximum speed of 3-4 knots, blocking the space for the vessels that are dropping their pilot. This is the place where a Maersk vessel grounded two years ago. Have we learnt a lesson?”

“From the comments I have received, it is clear that some of the vessels, especially smaller and local ones, are not following rules and regulations and should be brought to order by VTS,” says Szymanski. “We would welcome a bit more policing, especially those on the smaller vessels in the port limits. We believe they are sailing without a master on the bridge. This creates serious problems for bigger vessels in transit.”

At the time of announcing its findings, MPA chief executive, Andrew Tan said, “MPA places a strong emphasis on the safety of navigation and takes a serious view of any incidents in Singapore waters. Moving forward, we will work more closely with all our industry partners to review our safety management procedures and implement additional measures to enhance navigational safety. We will also not hesitate to take appropriate actions against those who infringe our safety regulations.”

This is good news for Szymanski who hopes that the voice of seafarers will be heard. Masters and deck officers are not alone, and very often their mistakes are direct result of very complex environment they are working in, he says. “We are all responsible for the creation of the environment our seafarers work in, and presently there is room for improvement in Singapore. The safer the environment, the greater are the chances for the safe performance of all stakeholders.”

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