Ageing ships threaten lives of their crews

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The Independent Online
WHILE the world is focusing on the dangers of roll-on roll- off car ferries, another class of ship poses a far greater danger to thousands of seamen around the world, the head of the London-based International Maritime Organisation will warn this week. They are bulk carriers - the giant, ageing vessels that carry huge cargoes of commodities such as grain, coal, and iron ore.

William O'Neil, secretary- general of the IMO, the shipping arm of the United Nations, is to tell an international conference in Lisbon that safety standards for bulk carriers are not being adequately enforced, while growing numbers are sinking.

In the past 10 years, 700 crewmen on bulk carriers have drowned. In the first nine months of this year almost 100 have lost their lives and six ships have sunk.

Mr O'Neil will argue that while a huge outcry and demands for higher safety have followed the loss of roll-on roll- off ferries such as the Herald of Free Enterprise and the Estonia, the loss of far greater numbers and tonnage of bulk carriers has passed largely unnoticed, because, while the ships were larger, the lives lost were seafarers', not passengers'.

'We know that most bulk carriers lost at sea are more than 15 years old and often more than 20,' he said. In seven out of ten, he added, there was 'side structure failure'.

'The phrase has a clinical, technical, undramatic sound about it,' Mr O'Neil said. 'What it means is that in the middle of a voyage, probably during bad weather, the ship began to fall apart. Sections of the side plating, probably weakened by years of undetected corrosion, were torn away, allowing the sea to pour into the hold.

'If that happens to a tanker, and it does, the result is usually no more than an oil slick. Tankers are designed to carry liquid. It makes no practical difference whether it is oil or water. But bulkers carry iron ore, or grain, or coal. If moisture is added, the mixture can mean instant death to the ship and her crew.'

Bulk carriers are divided along their length into compartments. A study carried out by the US government last year showed an average 63,000- tonne bulk carrier is likely to survive the flooding of one cargo hold, but if water penetrates two tanks in the centre, the stresses will bend the ship and probably snap it in two. Two tanks penetrated at the front will make it sink; two at the rear will flood the engine room.

The world's bulk carrier fleet is ageing and not being renewed. More than half those on the seas today were built in the Seventies, making them 15 years old or more.

Ten years ago, only a sixth of the fleet were 15 years old. What has changed is that there was a boom in the mid-Seventies, then a slump. Relatively few ships have been built since then, while the vessels built in the mid-Seventies have survived into an old age for which they were not designed.

They were built larger than before, moving into uncharted territory for structural integrity and, with age, they rust and lose some of their strength. They offer cheaper charter rates to customers because their building costs have long been paid off.

The IMO, which covers 150 shipping nations, including Third-World countries, persuaded them to sign new inspection regulations in 1991. That year there were 24 losses. Initially the tighter inspections seemed to have worked and the rate of losses fell. Now it is creeping back up. The IMO feels there is little point in passing new laws if the existing ones are not being observed.

The organisation has no teeth of its own and, in any case, is only the combined voice of the member states. Many of the member governments, which agree to ratify the agreements for tighter checks, have the teeth but often refuse to bite.

The IMO hopes to set up a database so that the countries which are trying to enforce the rules can work together and compare notes, gradually squeezing the operators into smaller and smaller corners of the world and discrediting the less fastidious countries so that ships registered or approved in them become almost uninsurable.

Like turning a bulk carrier in a heavy sea, the task threatens to be long and painful.

(Photograph omitted)