A series of statements last week by the Mauritian Police about the Voice Data Recorder (VDR) of the oil spill ship, Wakashio, has attracted a lot of attention in Mauritius.
There appears to be a divergence from the accounts offered by the Panama Maritime Authorities and what the Wakashio’s Voice Data Recorder reveals.
It will be crucial that this discrepancy is properly investigated, to ensure the uncertainty surrounding the Wakashio does not continue to persist, given the impact the oil spill has had on the country which is still in a state of National Environmental Emergency.
Questions have also been asked about why other vessels in close proximity to Mauritius in the evening of July 25 did not report hearing anything on Channel 16 of their VHF radio, which is the designated at an international distress frequency by the UN’s International Telecommunications Union that regulates this bandwidth. Over the course of a day, there are between 50 and 100 large ocean bound vessels passing within a few miles of Mauritius’ coast, around one every 20 minutes.
What is known so far
The Wakashio crashed into the reefs of Mauritius on July 25 at around 7.15pm in the evening, travelling at a cruising speed of 11 knots (12 miles per hour).
Drone footage (seen in link above) shot by Mauritian investigative journalist, Reuben Pillay, was taken the following day on July 26 at around 5am as the sun was rising (i.e., within 9 hours of the crash at first light in Mauritius). It shows the condition of the Wakashio in the immediate aftermath of the grounding, including the external conditions of the bridge’s communication systems, and reveals the direction and condition of the vessel when it collided with the reefs, before the currents had the chance to significantly move the vessel.
The vessel remained on the reef for 12 days before the oil spill on August 6, and a further 9 days before it split completely in two on August 15.
In parliament on August 28, the Prime Minister of Mauritius, Pravind Jugnauth said, “At 20h10 the Master of the Vessel finally reported to the call made by the NCG. Whilst providing information relating to its position, its last port being Singapore, the next port of call being Brazil, the Master of the vessel informed that the vessel was on an innocent passage. After further query, the Captain stated that he had lost control of his vessel, which got grounded.”
Satellite analysis reveals there was no indication that the Wakashio slowed down or attempted to steer away from the coral reefs in the hours prior to the collision with Mauritius’ coral reefs.
One important line of inquiry has been whether the engine malfunctioned or had been faulty.
How ships brake
Central to this is understanding how ships slow down in the ocean.
Large ocean vessels do not have any brakes as a normal car on land would. Instead, they slow down either using their steering or reversing their propellers.
This means that the condition of the engine room and key components will be critical pieces of evidence in any investigation.
It has been surprising that no images have been released of the engine room of the Wakashio.
This is surprising because the Wakashio had been stuck on Mauritius’ reefs for 12 days before oil started to leak and was fully intact for 21 days until it split in two on August 15. There would have been plenty of opportunity to go down to the engine room and take such images, given the number of Mauritian police and salvors on the Wakashio at the time of the salvage before the vessel split completely in two.
Even though the forward section of the Wakashio was deliberately sunk on August 24 in an undisclosed location, the rear remains on Mauritius’ reefs, and includes all the key components of the ship’s engine.
Narrative of the ‘search for internet connectivity’ questioned
With statements last week from the vessel operator, Mitsui OSK Lines and efforts by satellite internet provider, Inmarsat, to ensure all seafarers remain connected to the internet during Covid-19, the initial accounts by the Panama Maritime Authority about the reasons for being so close to the shoreline appear to be less and less credible.
The Panama Maritime Authority had initially suggested in a statement on September 8, that the captain and crew had been close to Mauritius in search for internet connectivity.
Possible explanation of the VDR silence
The VDR highlights several periods of silence in the recording and does not have the crew responding to Coastguard calls. The Mauritian Police have said there were logs of the Mauritius National Coastguard calling the vessel, but no record of these being received on the VDR of the Wakashio.
The Press Conference was led by Assistant Police Superintendent Roshan Kokil (and can be viewed here), who had also been mentioned by the former lawyer to the Wakashio Captain, Yousuf Mohamed, as the police officer who had contacted him on the morning of September 1 and informed him that Captain Nandeshwar no longer wanted his services, despite having been in contact with the Captain’s wife and sister, who is a judge in India. In the newspaper interview and TV appearance by Senior Counsel Yousuf Mohamed, he revealed that upon arrival at the police barracks, the captain then agreed for Mr Mohamed to represent him, before changing his mind again the following morning on September 2.
The captain and deputy are now represented by lawyers appointed by the shipowners, Nagashiki Shipping and the insurers of the vessel, Japan P&I Club. Neither have provided any comment to the media.
One important question is whether the crew had been distracted by an engine issue, and so was unable to hear or respond to such calls by the Mauritian Coastguard.
This could explain why they were unable to hear or respond to Coastguard calls from Mauritius.
So far, there has not been any images taken or circulated of the engine room of the Wakashio to be able to assess this hypothesis. This is surprising.
A brief guide to ship engines
Ship engines can be the size of a building. Most large bulk carriers like the Wakashio tend to have two stroke engines.
A two-stroke engine completes a power cycle with two strokes (up and down movement) of the piston during one crankshaft revolution.
This means that each piston would travel up and then down during one rotation of the crankshaft.
If they are 6 cylinders (as seen below with grey boxes), then that’s the six pistons positioned in a straight line.
So it is these six pistons that power the entire ship, and can control its ability to slow down.
The condition of these pistons will be crucial to understand for the investigation.
With a ship engine, one end is usually connected to the propeller and the other to the exhaust vents at the top of the ship.
There are three key components of a large ship engine to be inspected on the Wakashio include:
- Connection of the engine to the propeller (crank, crankshaft, crankcase, connecting rod)
- Venting of the exhaust fumes (intake, transfer and exhaust, including purifiers and filters for the air and exhaust emissions).
- Engine itself (drive shaft, cylinder, piston, piston rings, exhaust valve, fuel injector)
Time to image the engine before new salvage team arrives
As the new salvage team (appointed by the Japan P&I Club) are yet to arrive in Mauritius to dismantle the rear of the ship, there should be an opportunity to take high resolution images of the engine room and key components of the engine.
It is important to note that mechanical faults in ships have jumped significantly in 2020. In Roll On – Roll Off car ferries alone, there has been a 20% increase in mechanical failures in 2020 alone. World leaders appear to be ignoring such issues in the global shipping industry this year.
It will be important for the incident investigation team to know what state the Wakashio’s engines were from a physical observation perspective prior to the crash.
Images of key pieces of machinery will help any incident investigation diagnose any mechanical failure.
Why have no photos been taken of the Wakashio engine room?
The last time a ship ran aground on Mauritius (the MV Benita in 2016), there was detailed footage and imagery of the key mechanical parts of the vessel (see at 4 minutes 30 seconds in the above video).
This did not go into the details of the components of the ship, such as the condition of the pistons, but at least gives an indication of the working condition of the engine room.
However, similar images have not been released from the Wakashio.
Were any images or videos taken by the Mauritius Police Force and Coastguard?
A litany of omissions
After the controversy surrounding the provenance of the oil fingerprinting, it will be important that evidence is collected by the Mauritian authorities to avoid any accusations that these images have been falsified by members of the crew, shipowners, vessel insurers or salvors.
There appears to be a lot that was not normal in the investigation into the Wakashio so far, and such an omission here while the vessel is still on the reefs would be yet another major misstep for an island nation that has positioned itself as a major ocean state as well as over 100 international consultants flown in as ‘ocean salvage and oil spill experts.’
The budget has not yet been revealed for these international consultants as subsistence fishermen in Mauritius complain to Greenpeace about not earning enough to provide food (with the Government saying there are insufficient funds to meet original disbursement conditions they had outlined), local villagers complaining about how health officials are missing many of them out and omitting a proper health census of all villagers in the region, and environmental groups struggling to save the last remaining species of some of the world’s rarest corals, birds and reptiles from extinction caused by the oil spill.
For a lot of expensive international expertise, there’s been an awful lot of omissions.
An explanation of key ship engine parts
Explanation of the two-stroke engine
Two-stoke engines are the most common form of engine for large ocean bound bulk carriers like the Wakashio.
Exhaust Filters and Purifiers
As seen at 5 minutes in this video by the world’s largest ship engine manufacturer, Man Energy Solutions.