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Danica White Hijacking – ‘Minimum Safe Manning’ Partly to Blame?

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February 7, 2008

Danica White Hijacking

by Fred Fry

The English translation to the DANICA WHITE hijacking is now available. As previously mentioned, the ship’s crew is partly to blame for the incident, as they failed to maintain a proper watch:

If there had been proper lookout from DANICA WHITE, the pirate boats could have been spotted app. 30 minutes before they reached DANICA WHITE. However, due to the slow speed of the ship, DANICA WHITE could not have sailed away from the pirates, but the crew would have been able to raise the alarm in time and shown the pirates that they had been spotted. (6.5) – DMA (page 5)

Here is a list of who was on the ship. The ship had an absurdly low crew of five:


That’s it. Two Captains, two Ordinary Seamen (OS) (an entry-level position which requires little more than a heartbeat) and a cook to feed them. No experienced crew. No Able-bodied Seaman (AB) for the Ordinary Seamen to learn from. No Bosun to oversee them, no time for the Captain or Mate to supervise them, other than when they were on the bridge, no additional watchstanding officer to keep working time on the bridge to eight hours a day per officer, leaving four hours of overtime available for other activities and no engineers to maintain the machinery or to figure out any problems if the ship’s engine or generator decide to stop working on it’s own.

Here is how the work was organized on the ship:

Normally, DANICA WHITE had a crew of 6 men, the master, the mate, three OSs and one cook.

The sea watch on board was arranged in such a way that the master and the mate had a 6 – 6 hours schedule as the navigators on duty. Two out of the three OSs also had similar 6 – 6 hours schedule as lookout man/helmsman. OS 3 was a day man and did not take the sea watch. The OS on duty worked with the day man within normal working hours (08 – 17).

In port, the OSs kept an entrance log at the gangway. (Page 16)

Basically, this ship did not have enough crew to maintain a proper lookout. In my experience, Ordinary Seaman just don’t count. Sure they contribute, but that is not exactly their purpose, especially when it comes to contributing to a bridge lookout.

An Ordinary Seaman (OS) is an unlicensed member of the deck department of a merchant ship. The position is an apprenticeship to become an Able Seaman, and has been for centuries. In modern times, an OS is required to work on a ship for a specific amount of time, gaining what is referred to as “sea time.” Once a sufficient amount of sea time is acquired, the OS can apply to take a series of courses, and then a series of examinations to become certified as an able seaman.

An OS is generally not required to stand watch, but must pass examinations on watchstanding skills such as performing lookout duty and being a helmsman. Thus an OS will often be found on a ship’s bridge after working hours taking a turn at the ship’s wheel or being familiarized with bridge equipment.

During the apprenticeship, an OS performs a variety of duties concerned with the operation and upkeep of deck department areas and equipment. These duties vary with the type of ship, the type of voyage, the number of crewmembers, the weather, the supervisor, and any number of other variables. However, in most cases, one can expect an ordinary seaman to clean, to perform maintenance, to work with deck equipment, and to undergo on-the-job-training under the supervision of senior deck department members. – Wikipedia

It is nice to have them onboard to do the menial tasks, so that the able-bodied seaman can take care of other things, or give them an extra set of hands to take care of larger tasks. So, this ship really had a crew of two. (The equivalent position in the engine room is ‘Wiper’. Can you guess the type of work that he does?) To prove my point that you can’t count on ordinaries to safely mann the ship, take a look at what happened on this ship:

On 12/5 at 1810, the following has been entered into DANICA WHITE’s logbook:

“OS XXX leaves the watch – does not wish to keep a lookout – believes that he is entitled to sit down.”

On 13/5 at 1000, the following has been entered: “no lookout”.

On 21/5, shortly after DANICA WHITE left Sharjah, one of the OSs was signed off due to illness. After this, only two OSs were left on board.

Subsequently, the master decided to stop the OSs’ sea watch. According to him, this decision was taken on basis of the fact that he did not want further discussions with the two OSs, who did not want to carry out the sea watch in addition to the cleaning and keeping up the maintenance of the deck. (Pages 16-17)

So as far as the Captain and Mate were concerned, it was better to have nobody on the bridge than have any of the three OS up there. This is how the Master ended up on watch alone when the ship was taken by the pirates, although one could probably take the position that he was still alone up there, even with the ordinaries standing watch:

Before Sharjah, the two OSs participated in the sea watch as lookouts or helmsmen according to fixed schedule where the OS 1 had the watch from 00-06 and from 12-18 with the mate and OS 2 from 06-12 and from 18-24 with the master. OS 3 was the day man. They took turns every month.

At one point, the day man replaced OS 2 (OS 4), because the master did not get along with OS 2.

The OS on duty, worked with the day man within normal working hours (08-17). Therefore, it was only outside normal working hours that the ordinary seamen ran the bridge watch. The ordinary seamen received a contractual wage increase for the time spent on watch.

After leaving Sharjah, the master cancelled the OSs’ sea watch, because they did not wish to run the sea watch and do work on deck and because the Master did not want any more arguments with them. Also the mate did not think there was a need for an OS on the lookout. (Page 10)

So, according to the above point, even if the OS were still standing watch, the Captain probably still would have been caught alone as the OS on watch would have been doing work elsewhere during the day. This is not an uncommon practice. I am used to watches having two ABs assigned to each watch where during the day with one working on deck with the Bosun. (I did sail on one ship that had only three AB’s and a Bosun.)

The pirates did not believe that there were only 5 men on board. (Page 11)

I too find it hard to believe. It would be nice to see a copy of the minimum safe manning certificate issued to this ship, but the authorities thought better not to include it in the report. This is about all that the report mentions concerning this issue:

6.3 The Watch

According to DANICA WHITE’s Minimum Safe Manning, the crew must consist of at least one Master, one chief officer and two ordinary seamen.

Furthermore, the ship normally has one OS and one cook on board.

With three ordinary seamen on board, it is possible, in relation to the resting hours regulations, to let two of the ordinary seamen be on a 6-6 hour sea watch as navigators, and let the third OS operate as day man for the cleaning and run-down work on deck.

During the actual sailing, there were only two OSs on board because the third had been signed off due to illness shortly before departure.

With two ordinary seamen on board, it was still possible, in relation to the resting hours regulations, to let one OS take the lookout watch in the dark hours and also to clean the ship.

During DANICA WHITE’s passage off the coast of Somalia, a sail of 8 – 9 days and nights should have established an increased lookout, as recommended in MSC/Circ.623, and as stated in the ship’s procedure for piracy under the wording “Stay alert”. This could have been done with two OSs on board, however the time to do any other work would have been very limited, if the resting time regulations were to be observed. (Pages 21-22 )

During this sailing, only the navigator on duty was on the bridge because the Master had decided that the OSs were not to take the sea watch. The navigator on duty was therefore the only one on the lookout, also in the dark and no increased lookout had been established, even though the sailing took place in an area where there is a risk of pirate attack. Lastly, the Master was alone on the bridge during the pirate attack, occupied with other things than the sailing of the ship and the lookout.

Under these circumstances, the watch on DANICA WHITE was insufficient. (Pages 21-22)

But the report makes no mention of whether the Minimum Safe Manning Certificate contributed to this problem by not requiring more than four crewmembers, of which one was the Captain who was forced to stand watch, one watchstanding officer and two entry-level seaman. With only four seafarers required to be onboard, the maximum available for any one watch would have been 2.

Here is what the Danish Maritime Authority has to say about Minimum Safe Manning:


All passenger ships, cargo ships of 20 gross tonnage or more, and cargo ships of less than 20 gross tonnage engaged in international trade, must have a Minimum Safe Manning Document. In Denmark each Minimum Safe Manning Document is issued to the individual ship. A shipping company may also apply for a preliminary decision on minimum safe manning before registering in the Danish International Ship Register (DIS). Contact the Danish Maritime Authority’s Centre for Seafarers and Fishermen for further information on e-mail: – DMA

Shipping companies will often go shopping around to get the minimum safe manning certificate they want. (So while I might be picking on the Danes, they are not the only ones who issue questionable MSM certificates. You would think though that they would know better.) I would love to know how this ship’s Minimum Safe Manning certificate did not include any requirement for experienced unlicensed bridge crew or any engineering staff. It’s not like this ship was operating in coastal Europe; it was traveling to Africa and to North and South America. Even if the Captain also had an engineering license, there is no time for him to spend in the engine room with all of his time dedicated to standing watch. (There is no evidence he did have any engineering certification. The issue is that the ship was not required to carry any engineering personnel.)

Here is a summary of how to determine the minimum safe manning for a vessel.

Now you might think, ‘sure this is only the minimum crew requirements, the ship operator will surely place additional crew onboard, as was the case here’. My answer to that is how often do you do more than the minimum? Do you ever pay more than the sticker price for an item? This ship was sailing with the minimum as the cook is not included in the MSM certificate. The ship operator could have replaced the cook with frozen dinners and a microwave if it wanted to, but opted not to.

So while the report mentions that the ship should have had an increased lookout, it completely ignores the fact that there was nobody on board to increase the lookout with! At best, the Captain could have put the OSs back on watch where they should have been in the first place. While the initial news reports faulted the crew, after reading the translated report I suspect that the blame should be extended to the Danish Maritime Administration for issuance of a MSM certificate that resulted in the ship being insufficiently manned as they state in their own report. In my opinion, this ship was not only improperly manned for sea, but also for entering and leaving port as well. There is no indication on whether or not any of the OS had been certified as helmsmen. Even if they were, this means that the ship was ‘steered’ by a person with minimum training. Then on deck, this leaves the mate to supervise docking operations on both the bow and stern, unless the Captain supervised the bow from the bridge. Of course, the engine room would be unmanned at the time it is most likely to develop problems and result in an accident. Now picture a ship like this coming into San Francisco. That is easy, since this ship did call the US. The only good thing I can say is that if you were an OS on this ship, you had the opportunity to get lots of hands-on experience in every job the deck department has to offer!

You can find the English translation of the DANICA WHITE piracy report here.

Maritime Accident Casebook also comments on the case with “The Danica White and The Pirates – All That Was Missing Was A Welcome Mat

As I mention above, Denmark is not the only Administration that is guilty of issuing bare-bones Minimum Safe Manning certificates. The first US-Flag ship I sailed on had only 18 crew, and that was including the two cadets. (This was not enough crew for docking the vessel without the assistance of the unlicensed engineers on deck.) They are just the example of the day. There has been some internal discussion between the various maritime blogs concerning the issue of watchstanding Captains. Surely this will be brought up as one example of why this is a bad idea, along with others. More to follow sometime in the near future.

Originally posted on my blog Fred Fry International, HERE.

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