'Braer' captain accused of neglect: 'Lack of basic seamanship and dereliction of duty' by ship's master criticised. John Arlidge reports

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The Independent Online
THE CAPTAIN of the Braer tanker showed 'a fundamental lack of basic seamanship and serious dereliction of duty', which led to the oil spill in the Shetland Islands last January, a government report said yesterday.

Capt Alexandros Gelis failed to ensure that crew members kept a proper watch on the vessel and took no action to determine whether pipes, which had become dislodged in heavy seas, had damaged vital equipment on the deck. This indicated 'a fundamental lack of basic seamanship (and) a serious dereliction of the Master's duty to preserve the seaworthiness of his vessel and the safety of his crew'.

The report by the Department of Transport's Marine Accidents Investigation Branch concludes: 'The quality of the senior manning, while no doubt typical of many hundreds of other vessels trading at sea today, left much to be desired.' Shetland coastguards are also criticised for a slow response to Capt Gelis's requests for a tugboat.

The Liberian-registered Braer drifted on to rocks at Garths Ness and broke up on 5 January, discharging 85,000 tonnes of light crude oil, which killed birds, polluted salmon farms and damaged the local tourist industry.

The clean-up operation cost pounds 2.5m. Engine failure caused by contaminated fuel is confirmed as the cause of the accident. Steel pipes, which had worked loose as the vessel pitched up to 22 degrees in heavy seas, rolled around the deck, fracturing air vents leading to the ship's diesel storage tanks. Seawater entered the tanks, which caused the engines and generator to shut down. Frantic efforts to restart the engines failed.

Capt Gelis, 46, was wrong to allow his Filipino, Pakistani, Greek and Polish crew to remain in the wheelhouse while on look-out duty in heavy seas, the report says. If the crew had been on deck 'the breaking loose of the pipes might have been noticed earlier'.

On 4 January, when Capt Gelis was told that the pipes were rolling around the deck, striking air vents, he said no repairs could be made until the weather improved. He did not examine the deck to see if the pipes had caused serious damage and spent the evening watching videos. Steps should have been taken to secure or jettison the pipes, the report says.

It also condemns the ship's superintendent and chief engineer for failing to investigate the source of the seawater after they discovered that the fuel had become contaminated. Despite having sophisticated navigation equipment on board, Capt Gelis 'made no effort to ascertain the direction and rate of drift of his vessel even after being asked to do so by the coastguard', the report adds.

Suggestions that Capt Gelis should not have chosen to sail through the North Fair Isle Strait are dismissed. 'It is the least hazardous and shortest route,' the report says. There was no evidence that the 45,000-tonne vessel, built in 1975, was poorly maintained. 'She was structurally sound with no known significant deficiencies.'

The Braer's American management company, the B&H group, said the report 'relied excessively on hindsight'. A spokesman added: 'Time has done nothing to diminish our admiration for the men who stayed . . . in a blacked- out ship, working until the last possible moment in an effort to prevent the grounding.'

A separate report by Lord Donaldson, former Master of the Rolls, due to be published in April, will make recommendations on increasing the safety of tankers in British waters. Yesterday, Jim Wallace, MP for Orkney and Shetland, repeated calls for radar surveillance of tanker traffic.

(Photograph and map omitted)