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Master’s decisions to deviate from planned route led to Stellar Banner grounding

Master’s decisions to deviate from planned route led to Stellar Banner grounding
November 3, 2021

The Marshall Islands flag registry published the final report on the loss of the Stellar Banner, the very large ore carrier (VLOC) that grounded off Ponta da Madiera, Brazil in 2020.

The incident

At 1411 on 24 February 2020, two pilots from the Ponta da Madeira Terminal embarked Stellar Banner for the outbound transit of Baía de São Marcos. It was reported that the pilots had been scheduled to board the ship at 1330.

At 1442, Stellar Banner got underway laden with 294,871 MT of Iron Ore. This was approximately 40 minutes after the ship’s planned departure time and about 50 minutes after low tide. The ship’s drafts on departure were 21.33 m forward, 21.5 m midships, and 21.43 m aft. The estimated date of arrival at the planned discharge port was 4 April 2020.

At 1524, the pilots disembarked after the ship had passed Isla de Medo to starboard and entered the approach channel marking safe passage through Baía de São Marcos.

Stellar Banner had reached anchorage No. 3 by 1800 and anchorage No. 2 by 1845. The ship’s speed was about 11 knots. The distance to the sandbank at the outer entrance to the marked channel was approximately 20 NM. The Master stated that he decided to not anchor since the ship would be crossing the sandbank at or close to the time of hightide.

Just before 2000, the 3/O relieved the C/O as OOW. Based on the audio recording from the ship’s VDR, the Master told the C/O to take a rest but that the C/O could return if he was curious about the progress of the outbound transit.

Based on the VDR audio recording, the Master called the 2/O at 2002 and told him that he should come to the Bridge at 2100. He also told the 2/O that he expected that they would keep going.

At 2007, the Master directed the 3/O to change the scale on the echo sounder from 50 m to 100 m. The ship was inshore of the 50 m contour.

At about 2030, the ship passed buoy No. 6 to starboard. This was where the passage plan indicated that the ship’s course should be changed from a base course of 057° T to 029° T. The planned speed was 10 knots. Rather than changing course as planned, STELLAR BANNER remained steady on a course of 057° T at a speed of 11 knots.

Based on the Master’s statement, he had decided to leave the marked channel since it was after high tide and there was deeper water outside the channel. The charted depths outside the channel were all greater than 20 m. Based on the VDR audio recording, the Master did not tell the 3/O why he decided to leave the marked channel, nor did the 3/O ask the Master why he had decided to not follow the planned route.

At 2130, multiple bilge and tank alarms activated. These included the forward and aft DBV bilge alarms, the port and starboard forward and the aft Engine Room bilge well alarms, the main engine recess bilge alarm, and multiple alarms for the double bottom tanks in way of the Engine Room.

At about this same time, the Master, the other members of the ship’s bridge team, watchstanders in the Engine Room, and off-duty crewmembers throughout the Accommodation reported feeling a vibration. Some of the off-duty crewmembers stated that it woke them up.

At 2133, the ship’s main engine speed dropped from 57-58 RPM to 54 RPM for around 30 seconds. Within a minute the ship’s speed over ground dropped from just over 12 knots to about 7 knots.

KR conducted a damage stability assessment after being informed by the Company that Stellar Banner may have contacted the bottom. This assessment assumed that the FPV, Nos. 1 and 2 starboard WBTs, and the DBV were fully flooded. It was determined that fully flooding these tanks would cause the ship to list between 6-7° to starboard.

This list would submerge the starboard main deck aft to approximately frame No. 85 and partially submerge the starboard side outboard portion of the hatches for Cargo Holds Nos. 1 and 2. KR advised the Company that the ship should be moved immediately into shallow water. The time KR made this recommendation to the Company was not reported to the Administrator. 96. By 0400, the Master determined sea water was flooding the damaged tanks and voids faster than the ship’s fixed and portable pumps could pump it out. In consultation with the Company the Master decided to intentionally ground Stellar Banner.

Probable cause

Causal factors that contributed to this very serious marine casualty, according to the report, include:

The Master’s decisions to: deviate from the planned route during the outbound transit of Baía de São Marcos, and pass within 1 NM of a 20 m shoal based on limited hydrographic information;
That Stellar Banner contacted the bottom after deviating from the planned route, resulting in damage to the hull and flooding of multiple voids and WBTs;

The following recommendations are based on the conclusions and in consideration of the preventive actions taken.

It is recommended that the company:

Amend its navigational watchstanding procedures for all bridge team members to more clearly recognize and implement the use of BRM during all phases of navigation, including when the Master has the conn;
Revise its passage planning procedures to include guidance regarding when deviating from planned routes might be warranted for reasons other than collision avoidance, weather routing, etc.