Rena Grounding Final Report Reveals Errors, Lack of Oversight

Mike Schuler
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December 18, 2014

The MV Rena lost an estimated 900 containers when it ran aground and broke up off the coast of New Zealand in October 2011. Photo courtesy Maritime New Zealand

A final report into causes and circumstances of the 2011 grounding of the MV Rena containership on New Zealand’s Astrolabe Reef has found that it was the failure of the master and crew to follow proper voyage planning, navigation and watchkeeping practices and the ship manager’s insufficient oversight of vessel’s safety management system that led to the grounding and subsequently the worst maritime disaster in the history of the country.

New Zealand’s Transport Accident Investigation Commission on Thursday published its long-awaited final report into the October 2011 incident, in which the MV Rena ran aground in the Bay of Plenty during a voyage from Napier to port of Tauranga. The ship hit the Astrolabe Reef at near full speed during the early morning hours of October 5, where it remained stuck and slowly broke up over the ensuing months. About 200 tonnes of heavy fuel oil were spilled in the accident, as well as a substantial amount of cargo containers were lost overboard.

According to the final report, the second mate decided to deviate from the planned course- under the master’s authorization to watchkeepers to avoid known unfavorable currents and shorten the distance to the destination – in order to make an October 5, 0300 meeting with a pilot boat from Tauranga, a deadline that was dictated by the port’s tidal currents. The course adjustment included reducing the ship’s planned passage from two nautical miles north of Astrolabe Reef to just one mile in order to save time. The report found that the second mate, in order to make the shortcut, “made a series of small course adjustments towards Astrolabe Reef” and, in doing so, he altered the course 5 degrees past the 260-degree required track. The report said that adjusted course, however, did not make an allowance for any compass error or sideways “drift”, and as a result the Rena was headed straight for Astrolabe Reef.

Rena Chart
Chart showing passage plan (course line), plotted positions and voyage data recorder GPS positions on approach to Tauranga. Click image for larger.

At approximately 0152, just prior to the grounding, the master returned to the bridge and discussed preparations for arrival at the pilot station with the second mate. It was then that the master assumed control of the ship, “having received virtually no information on where the ship was, where it was heading, and what immediate dangers to navigation he needed to consider”, the report said, adding that “during this period of handover no-one was monitoring the position of the ship.”

The MV Rena struck the Astrolabe Reef at 0214 while traveling at a speed of 17 knots.

The Transport Accident Investigation Commission report concluded that the Rena grounding was not in any way attributable to the malfunction of any on-board machinery or equipment, including on-board navigational equipment, but rather the grounding was solely the result of human error, confirming what we had suspected already and what was expressed in an interim report released by the Commission in March 2012.

Both the master second mate were previously sentenced to seven months in prison after being found guilty of 11 total charges stemming from the disaster, which included operating a vessel in a manner causing unnecessary danger or risk, discharging harmful substances from ships, and willfully attempting to alter the course of justice by altering ship’s documents after the grounding.

Clean-up at the wreck site on Astrolabe Reef continues to this day, although it is likely that remaining debris from the former MV Rena will be abandoned on the reef.

Full Report: Container ship MV Rena grounding on Astrolabe Reef, 5 October 2011

Findings, Recommendations and Key Lessons:

Factors that directly contributed to the grounding included the crew:

– not following standard good practice for planning and executing the voyage
– not following standard good practice for navigation watchkeeping
– not following standard good practice when taking over control of the ship.

Safety issues that the Commission identified in the wider context included:

– CIEL Shipmanagement S.A.’s oversight of the Rena’s safety management system was not sufficient to prevent a high number of port state control deficiencies identified during two port state control “initial” inspections about three months prior to the grounding, and routine violations of some company procedures for voyage planning and navigation
– an independent audit had found that the Philippines’ maritime education, training and certification system did not meet the mandatory standards specified in the Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers 1978 (the STCW Convention)
– the current auditing protocols of the STCW Convention lack the transparency that would assist member states to decide whether other countries’ training systems meet the standards of competency required by the STCW Convention, and therefore whether to recognise certificates of competency issued by those countries.

The report also discusses two other considerations that were raised during the inquiry – whether there is a need for ship routing in some form around the New Zealand coast, and how far maritime authorities should go in marking hazards to navigation such as Astrolabe Reef. The Commission identified two issues: first, with regard to shipping, there is insufficient data being collected to make a meaningful analysis of shipping movements around the New Zealand coast; and secondly, with regard to marking hazards, a new type of “virtual aid to navigation” is being used for marking hazards to navigation before this system has been fully tested and endorsed by the International Association of Marine Aids to Navigation and Lighthouse Authorities.

The Commission made recommendations to:

– CIEL Shipmanagement S.A. to evaluate the effectiveness of its safety management system to ensure that the issues identified with that system as applied on board the Rena do not affect other vessels within its fleet
– Maritime New Zealand to promote, through the International Maritime Organization, the transparency of the system for auditing countries’ seafarer training systems
– Maritime New Zealand to collect sufficient data on shipping movements around the New Zealand coast, and monitor and control the use of virtual aids to navigation around the New Zealand coast.

The key lessons learnt from the inquiry into this accident were:

– ship managers must ensure that their safety management systems are delivering safe ship operations for every ship in their fleets
– ships’ crews must comply with the mandatory requirements and recommended best industry practice for passage planning, navigation and watchkeeping if similar groundings and other equally catastrophic maritime casualties are to be avoided
– countries’ maritime education, training and certification systems must be capable of meeting the standards required by the STCW Convention to ensure that seafarers emerging from the system are trained to an appropriate standard.

Vessel Particulars

  • Name: Rena
  • Type: containership
  • Class: American Bureau of Shipping
  • Limits: unlimited
  • Classification: ?A11, ?2, ?AMS3, ?ACCU4
  • Length: 224.5 meters
  • Breadth: 32.2 meters
  • Gross tonnage: 37,209 tonnes
  • Built: 1990
  • Propulsion: single fixed-pitch propeller driven by one Sulzer 8RTA76 (21,680 kilowatts)
  • Maximum service speed: 20 knots
  • Owner/Manager: Daina Shipping Co./CIEL Shipmanagement S.A.
  • Port of registry: Monrovia

Incident Particulars

  • Date and time: 02145 on 5 October 2011
  • Location: Astrolabe Reef, Bay of Plenty, New Zealand 37° 32.4’S 176° 25.7’E
  • Persons involved: vessel’s crew
  • Injuries: nil
  • Damage: the hull was severely damaged during the initial grounding. The hull girder structure subsequently failed, leading to the vessel breaking in two. The aft section moved off the reef and sank. About 200 tonnes of heavy fuel oil were lost to the sea. A substantial amount of cargo in the containers was lost. The vessel was a total loss.
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